Oh, What’s Your Name Again? by Elizabeth Jacobson

Oh, What’s Your Name Again?           
 
 
 
            One Manhattan spring in the mid 1980’s, when graduate school was out until fall, a friend asked if I was interested in a job as an assistant to a very well known photographer.  She said a friend of hers was leaving the job and looking for a replacement.  The photographer was married to an even more celebrated writer, they lived in a townhouse on the East Side in the mid 50’s, and she was willing to hire me simply on the criterion that I was willing to be hired. 
            I showed up on my first day dressed in Levis, a white tee shirt and one of my father’s hand tailored suit jackets, which fit me well as I was taller than him.  I had walked across the green and blooming park, a 20ish human being in the early stages of    extraordinary optimism.  I entered the townhouse through the font door, and was immediately ushered down into the basement by a cleaning woman who pointed me in the direction of the photographer’s office, before she rushed away.  The photographer sat behind her folding table desk, which faced the open door, ferociously scribbling away on a yellow legal pad.  She didn’t look up for some time, ever after I had said hello, and then when she finally did, it was, ok, ok, here is a package for you to deliver, hurry up and get back.  Oh, what’s your name again?
            She sat motionless in her straight back chair, and directed me with a long finger to the basement entrance/exit that I was to use.  I left the building wanting to please her, and as she had not given me instructions on how she would like me to get to the downtown address printed in her handwriting on the envelope, I decided I would be thrifty and take the second avenue bus.  I returned quickly, and she said this much to me, then put me to work filing negatives and other data in a large storage closet.  I was definitely not to answer the phone, or touch anything in the office, unless she told me to, and so when the black rotary on her desk rang an hour later and she charged at it from the hallway, shrieking to me to pick it up already, and then screaming a reply to whomever was on the other end, slamming the phone down, and storming into the closet demanding to know why I had left the package at 1299 and not 1799, I was immobile.  She became even more hysterical, pulling on her dark hair so that it first jerked out the side of her head and then out to the back.  She called me an idiot, a moron, a stupid girl.
            She didn’t want me to deliver the package to the correct party.  I was to return with it, and she would call a messenger service to take it over.  I leaned back into the sticky vinyl seat of the taxi.   The wind came in from the rolled down windows, drying the dampness off the side of my face.  The day was clear and I watched the way the clouds formed patterns on the sides of some of the tall buildings.
            Immediately I saw how it had gone wrong.  She had crossed the 7 carelessly at the bottom, and I had mistaken it for a 2.  I showed her this upon my return, hoping somehow to reconcile with her, but instead she waved me away into the file closet without any consideration.  I told her that I didn’t think this was going to work out.  She agreed, but said that I could absolutely not leave until I found my own replacement.  She said she was going out for the rest of the day, and that I was to finish this and that before I left, and to then take the stairs to the top floor, which was her husband’s room, and leave this envelope for him on his desk.
            I went to the kitchen for some water, and found the cleaning woman eating her lunch.  She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a platter of meticulously arranged meats and vegetables.  There was sliced bread on the counter, mustard, mayonnaise and pickles.  She told me to have some, and then she would show me the house.  No one was home, she said, I’ll show you her bedroom.
            Every morning at 5am the trainer comes and she works out next to her bed.  The cleaning woman said that she comes in at 6:15 and sees him leaving.  She showed me the perfumes in the bathroom, the blue enamel sink like lapis with gold edging, the bottles of Chanel nail polish lined up like precious stones.  There was a zebra skin rug, animal print linens, a four-poster canopy bed, lots of gold and rust.  Nothing looked as if it had ever been touched; even the bottles of nail polish were completely full.
            The cleaning woman left me to my task at the bottom of the staircase leading to the top floor.  A red painted door was open, and I softly called hello a few times before making my way up the narrow steps.  It was like a staircase that might be in your grandparent’s house; the only part of this building that had gone unrenovated.  The steps were carpeted in an ancient deep blue that was threadbare in places.  At the top, this mysterious room with its low ceiling and small attic windows appeared to have been stopped in time.  There was a narrow cot in one corner, under an eve, with an old scratchy wool army blanket covering it.  A small area off to one side of the room had a sink and a mini fridge, and his desk, a grey folding card table, was at the center of the room, facing the two windows.  A half eaten sandwich was on the table and his small electric typewriter rested next to it, complete with a page in progress of his latest writing.   I looked at it, I studied it, I tried to memorize it, I read it over and over again, I saw THE END written close to the bottom of the page and felt the weight of those words on this page in relation to all the other pages that had come before this page in this new work, and in relation to this artist’s entire large body of work, and I took a bottomless inhale of the smell of it all – salty, smoky blue, wild grass, wet mud, alive blood and dead blood  — before placing the sealed envelope from his wife on top of his half eaten sandwich.

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About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well (https://miriamswell.wordpress.com). The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

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