excerpt from 'Broken Sleep'
An American Dream
By Bruce Bauman
All rights reserved.
THE SONGS OF SALOME
For Art's Sake
"I am large, I consume multitudes."
So sang my son. For so many of the multitudes, my son's voice lingers and stirs a longing for a time that never was. He sang not only of himself but also of our family, because after him came my granddaughter, and before him there was me. In the beginning, there was my mother.
I spoke with my mother only once. She gave me a hat. A silly red hat. I'd seen her every year on my birthday. That stopped the day I recognized her, and long before we met. I will tell you more about that day later. I live outside the concept of linear time, but many desire a tangible guideline, so I will do my best and start from my newly bornday: September 21, 1966, when I was chronologically twenty-three, and the day of my first happening. I titled it Art Is Dead. The idea sprang from me while visiting Art Lemczek, whom I'd friended as a young girl growing up in Orient Point on the northeastern tip of Long Island. Art was a loner who used to do odd jobs on my father's farm and sweep up in Boyle's Diner in Greenport. His complications from diabetes had grown so debilitating after they amputated his left leg, he attempted suicide. Twice.
After I heard about Art's second attempt, I went home to visit my parents. I drove over to his mouse hole of a rented room to comfort him. I found him balled up on his cot, wrapped in moth-eaten blankets, surrounded by paperback books and Playboys. I fixed some tea and lemon with a dash of rum. His morning favorite. He squirmed in pain as I helped him sit up to sip the tea. He began to reminisce, speaking slowly, often wincing when forming the words. "You remember the first time you helped me?"
"I sure do." I steadied the shaking cup by placing my hands over his so Art could sip the salving concoction without spilling it.
During a predawn bike ride, when I was about ten years old, I found Art passed out drunk in the middle of Platt Road. I stopped and gave him some water from my canteen and sat beside him. Soon my dad, on his way to the farm, came by in his truck. After Dad finished giving me "heck" for sitting where I could get run over, he drove Art back to Greenport.
"Salome, you've always been kind to me. Never acted 'afraid' of me."
"Afraid? Why? Because you growled at the kids who taunted you? I thought you were funny."
"Me, too. Sometimes. Back then I hated myself when I was sober. Now I hate being alive. There's no relief from the pain."
I had a vision. You might call it coincidence — if you believe in another of those too-human constructs. I don't. I explained my idea to him.
"Salome" — his voice, so soft and resigned, smelled like lukewarm oatmeal served with chopped bits of wet string — "I'd be grateful."
Back in Manhattan, I approached Myron Horrwich, my mentor and lover. He was sexually skillful and taught me about the pleasures of face time — licking below the belt. Horrwich dubbed himself "a world-famous conceptual artist." He had a concept about money, too — he conceptualized that he deserved piles of it. He was fifty-plus years old and still acted like a coddled prodigy. Entranced by his swirling, dilated pupils — unaware at the time that he laced his nose with droplets of belladonna — I explained my idea. Waving his elongated fingers through the air like a maestro, he pronounced ecstatically, "Brilliant. Let's do it."
We spread the word about an "outrageous extravaganza" in the underground grapevine using the Voice and Rat. Horrwich's lawyers drew up papers that Art willingly signed.
On a late September afternoon, as our unofficial finale to the Avant-Garde Festival, we gathered in Central Park by Bethesda Fountain, soon to be made famous by the Hair crowd. The Fugs played. Psychic infusions abounded. Horrwich persuaded Xtine Black, a former assistant of his and not yet renowned, to photograph the event. We distributed handmade ART IS DEAD buttons to the two hundred or so people, including the innovators of the happening scene. I was introduced to Leslie Tallent, my first champion, who also aggrandized himself as one of the "five most prominent art critics in America." Art sat innocuously by himself sipping a bourbon, his favorite afternoon libation. I'd bought him a gabardine suit from Korvettes. He kept smiling at me through his rotting teeth and giving me a thumbs-up that didn't fully dismiss my doubts.
As the autumn sun began descending, I escorted Art around our little group, pushing him in his wheelchair. Just before he entered the prepared Plexiglas booth, he reached up and draped his arms around me and whispered weepily, "Salome, thank you."
Horrwich and I helped Art climb into the booth. Art locked the door. Situated himself in his chair beside "the Art contraption" Horrwich and I had assembled. Without hesitation, Art pressed down on the igniter button. It took five seconds ...
... And then — boom! — he blew himself into a shower of human confetti. That's right ... Killed himself. Assisted suicide before its time.
A few screams penetrated the otherwise boggle-eyed silence that overwhelmed most of the crowd. Then — whoosh — pandemonium! Some people thought it was a joke. Or a trick. Others applauded. More than a few cursed and left. At least one person vomited. Another of Horrwich's assistants set off fireworks. We had a permit for everything — even got the okay from Mayor Lindsay's culture czar, Henry Geldzahler (we'd fudged our proposal — a lot). Horrwich had calculated every possibility. Except he'd never truly contemplated, not even for a minute, the consequences of blasting Art's body into pieces onto the Plexiglas walls. When I'd begun to have reservations about the whole spectacle, he belittled me for even thinking of betraying my own fidelity to art. I fell for Horrwich's BS when he flattered me by saying that I possessed an "original and sensation-filled mind."
Murray Gibbon, who would be my gallery representative for thirty-five years, with his blubbery muffin body, his toadlike head, and his extremities spasming in every direction, began mumbling both curses and novenas.
Horrwich buzzed around on some massive adrenaline rush while I had the urge to flee to Orient and hide. I picked up a chipped bottle, awash in remorse and elation, trying to console myself with what Art said when I first suggested the idea. "There are ways to help someone live and ways to help him die. And you have helped me live, and now — I want this."
Marcel Duchamp, an unabashed dragueur, sidled up beside me. "Aha, a perfect ready-made." He calmly took the bottle from my hand and placed it down beside his left leg.
I steadied myself. "For pain or pleasure? The garbage heap or art?"
"For all. For all of them are what makes great art. Art is cruel, and beautiful, and a premeditated accident." His voice was surprisingly timid, with a touch of insouciance. "Don't look sad. Don't you recognize what you have done today? And the jeu de mots, the pun — superb. This is the new art. Or do you believe all art is truly dead?"
"You tell me. I really don't know."
"I can tell you later. I can show you much. Today you have achieved the extraordinary."
Somehow this parch-skinned, beak-nosed rooster face, thinking he was still some beau gosse, undarkened my mood. Maybe what I'd done was worthwhile and had meaning and wasn't some modernist Circus Maximus stunt. I regained my composure. I donned the infinitesimal fuck-me smile that was my attitudinal dress code back then. "And just who are you to show me?"
"You know who I am."
"Sure, you're Mona Lisa with a five o'clock shadow."
"Très intelligente." He delicately rubbed the light blond hair on my right forearm.
"Look, you're old enough to be my grandfather —"
"But I am not your grandfather ..."
Suddenly, there she stood. Off to the west side of the fountain where the cement met the grass. Under the still dusky sky, the lamps flickered around the fountain area, and the fireworks' black smoke disseminated above the Plexiglas booth like a papal signal, a distant goddess in a long leopard skin coat and a big tan hat and oversize round sunglasses. Greta. I had sent an invitation to her apartment on 52nd Street. It came back "Return to Sender. Addressee Unknown." It'd been almost a decade since I'd first noticed her staring at me in the restaurant. The hurts reverberating from that day of discovery, of being found and tossed away again, leeched up my insides like parasitical bloodsuckers, and I wished I'd been inside the booth instead of Art, now freed from the pains of life. I started crying. Just a little.
Duchamp caressed my back. I noticed Duchamp and Greta, quickly, almost surreptitiously, gazing at each other. Both of their faces unreadable. I lasered in on her and tried to will her to look at me, but she never did. She hunched over — she was not as lissome and grand as she seemed on the big screen — and slinked away, up the stairs to the bridge and vanished into a waiting limo. I stood up, wanting to chase her and take the bottle and fling it at the windshield and swandive in front of the out-of-control car. Duchamp clasped my left shoulder, grumbled something in French under his breath, and whispered, "Wait." He stood and moved his arm around to my right shoulder. His fingers edged toward my left breast. I eyed him with a sneer that taunted, "That your best move, old man?" He tilted his head slightly to the left. A crooked, thin-lipped smirk on his face. It gave me the chills — the sex chills. In that pause where something is going to happen one way or the other and I wasn't sure which, dozens of cops charged down the staircase and from around the Boathouse. A few people furiously snapped photos. I heard Horrwich screeching, "Salome! Oh, ah Sal-o-me!" as if he were having a damned orgasm. The cops arrested us and accused us of being accessories to manslaughter. Horrwich expected it. He wanted it. A well-prepared lawyer who knew the corruptions of the courthouse accompanied us to the precinct. We didn't spend a single night in jail.
When I shook myself awake the following morning, Horrwich, wearing only his boxer shorts, his already tumescent ego expanding to the unbearable, was skip-dancing around the loft in a combination hora and Irish jig waving the newspapers in celebration. "Salome, get up! Articles galore. We did it!" I sifted through them. On page three of the Daily News I stared at a black-and-white photo of "the reclusive Greta Garbo" sans sunglasses, her arctic eyes gazing directly at me as I watched Art's exploding body. I saved it. I still have it.CHAPTER 2
THE CANTICLES OF HANNAH, I (1958)
Mixing Memory and Desire
The twenty-two-year-old receptionist, who already possessed a worldview that dismissed the foolhardy hopes and illogical bromides of her family, who believed "everything happens for a reason," stared blankly into space waiting for the next phone call. Into this blank space, through the wooden office doors of Bickley & Schuster, Attorneys at Law, stiffly stepped a perfectly coiffed man wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, no tie, and holding a fedora in his left hand. He smiled almost brashly. He spoke with a slight accent that made his question, though formed politely, sound like a command. "Excuse me, can you please tell William Bickley Sr., Esquire, that Malcolm Teumer is here to see him?"
"Mr. Bickley left instructions for you to go right in. He and Mr. Lively are in the conference room." Before she could direct him, he winked and disappeared down the corridor. Like almost all receptionists in mid-Manhattan offices, this demure and attractive young woman learned fast how to slough off the flirtations of the male clients. This one, though, handsome as he was, reminded her of the cultured Paul Henreid in Casablanca.
Many phone calls and three client arrivals later, William Bickley Sr., the essence of a Central Park West Manhattanite, appeared. "Hannah, may I ask you an awkward question?"
Hannah nodded, fearing if she gave the wrong answer, she'd be out of a job.
"Malcolm Teumer, you saw him before ... he would like to take you to dinner this Friday." She bowed her head diffidently. "I ask because he preferred not to put you in a compromising position. Your personal life isn't my business, but I can attest that he is a fine gentleman and of your religion."
Bickley did not know that in the one year since her never-discussed divorce, she'd accepted exactly no offers for a date. "Mr. Bickley, he's twenty years older than me."
"Not quite, but yes, he's older. If I didn't think it was a good idea, I wouldn't be standing here."
Malcolm picked up Hannah at her parents' home in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and drove her to the Blue Mill Tavern in the Village. She sheepishly admitted Astor Place and West 4th Street were only subway stops to her, a cloistered Brooklyn girl who scurried home directly after work every night. "My dear Hannah, we must change that," Malcolm told her.
On their second date, at Minetta Tavern, Hannah's swoon deepened. After dessert, Malcolm abruptly pushed up the sleeves of his jacket and shirt and revealed the numbers. She gasped. She should have guessed. He quickly slipped his sleeves back down. "I dislike speaking of my past. Only ... Hannah, I fancy you and I wish to see you again, so I must make you aware that I have suffered unspeakable degradations." He crossed his arms over his chest and gripped his powerful biceps with his hands, holding his jaw tightly closed. "Stop shaking. There's no reason."
Her eyes began to well. "I must tell you something."
Malcolm dropped his arms by his sides and his tone softened.
"Hannah, please don't be scared. You will soon understand very little can shock me."
"I was married when I was eighteen. And my husband divorced me by the time I was twenty. Because I can't have children."
"What a horrible man he must have been not to see the beautiful treasure you are."
Seven months later, they were married and settled in a small apartment in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Malcolm ran an import-export business, which he had started by using funds his family had smuggled out of Europe. Hannah often thought, better they should have smuggled themselves. Soon, the evenings spent in swell restaurants dwindled. Hannah, who continued working at Bickley & Schuster, hurried home to have supper ready when Malcolm got home from the office.
One evening, after Malcolm finished a meeting with Bickley, he suggested they stop for dinner on the way home. Before they ordered, Malcolm declared, "I think you should stop working."
"Why? Are you sure? Do we have the money?"
"Yes, I am sure. It's time we start a family."
"Ach, my dear" — he clasped her hand — "you misunderstand. I'm sorry to have scared you. We will adopt. During my meeting today with William, he confirmed that he has found us a boy. He can arrange everything."
"Oh, Malcolm," Hannah exclaimed, "how lucky I was to find you!" And in that moment, Hannah blindly accepted her parents' worldview — things do happen for a reason, and there is always hope.
Excerpted from Broken Sleep by Bruce Bauman. Copyright © 2015 Bruce Bauman. Excerpted by permission of Other Press.
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