Living at the Museum

 

I HAVE MANY memories of that windy city, a city constantly on the take, though there can’t be a take without a give. I will always remember that city and that girl as nearly taking me. Imagine being swallowed by a great lake, with people all around though no one notices a thing. Most of my memories I can even begin to sort out; a curse of time and they are colored and clouded by emotion and the innumerable round of shall we say cocktails. The Banker’s Daughter went for the ones with parasols that punctured & I went for retaliation through boilermaker. There isn’t much that can be as bitter as not knowing what was best for us. We were a couple of twisted knots not realizing the only destination was to cut the rope.

Why did I love her? There was a stunning interior beauty matched with the exterior of a model & she could be so very wicked with her words and I loved her for that. She was charmingly naïve and deceptively sophisticated. She held my admiration. She was a brilliantly creative hypochondriac. At first she was rocking a case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that enabled her to watch soap operas without guilt. Somehow this mysteriously morphed into narcolepsy. Her migraine scheme was so perfected it took the New England Journal of Medicine to keep a leg up. There was the always the notion of a phantom Lyme disease though we rarely left the city.

There were a couple of times I glanced at paperwork from the various hospitals. She kept a spreadsheet of them. I found diagnosis of fatigue and dehydration. I could almost hear the physicians quietly whispering “Munchausen’s.” They referred to her as a “frequent flyer.” After that I could no longer pick up the pink and yellow paperwork. I preferred a glued delusion.

Her mind glittered like the lights of the city, though thought and action were rarely aligned. The Banker’s Daughter would rot in bed reading Hume; devouring a book of his without leaving her little nest, eating Chinese take-out, too exhausted for chopsticks. She’d use a number two Ticonderoga to take lengthy notes. She said, “Here you can have this back.” Of course her words were embedded. It was a debt served up to me for getting her through a social anthropology class Ward Churchill had taught, slinging his own books as guidelines and giving the middle finger to the man.

Magritte was the Banker’s family matriarch and housekeeper. She had come North from Mississippi riding a breath of promise and hope. She could have been the sister of Gwendolyn Brooks, but forever haunted by the ghost of Emmet Till. She could never get over that Mississippi lynch mob and it took her to the streets. She had a mantra of “Do not loaf” and from that her exquisite hustle was born. There were many days I loved her more than the Banker’s Daughter.

You could eat a poached egg out of a toilet that Magritte had cleaned. I have never seen porcelain shine like that; a smell of fresh pine masking any scent that may be considered “industrial.” She always wanted things pleasant. We’d have these chat sessions she claimed were better than “the stories” played out in the soap operas on television, offering her the kind of company that didn’t talk back. Once Magritte looked me dead in the eye, seeing something I couldn’t see yet. “You take my girl, you take that girl and get her far far away from here.” Her words circled the air like buzzards catching a thermal. Then her words came down, almost mixing with the water dripping from her yellow gloves, almost going down the drain. I got the Banker’s Daughter as far as California and gave her a new lease on life. She cashed that in quick; the casual complaint of more opportunity back home. She was adamant on her return.

Everybody made a quick exodus over Christmas. During the holidays the Banker’s mansion seemed too quiet for them to stand. I think they headed to Egypt, leaving Magritte and me to an empty nest. Once she caught me listening to an Uncle Tupelo song on repeat, trying to soothsay my future. She hauled me down to her area of the house, which she laughingly called her “quarters.” She put on Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and completely abandoned herself to the groove of memory, admitting, “That’s the real reason for these sounds.”

Magritte claimed she hadn’t danced in forty years so I took her by her skinny hands and we swayed to the equality of Nina’s voice; the look in Magritte’s eyes farther away than I could comprehend as she danced all trouble away. She pulled out a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, “The Good Stuff” from under her bed. Then we did a juke-joint shuffle to old blues. She knew all the words but the rhythms were her own. I was nearly fearful of her presence. We kept at it. She pulled out a crumpled pack of Chesterfield’s, “Oh, I shouldn’t do this.” It was something nostalgic no one could take away. She asked me one last thing, “Will you read me a couple of my favorite passages?” She was asleep by the third one.

A month later, Magritte handed me a couple of cast-away opera tickets. She scooped them off the marble counter-top, preventing them from finding a home in the trash. She had little idea what she had laid on me but smiled knowingly, “You go ahead and take my Banker’s Daughter.” Prior to going to La Boheme, I know I must have mentioned something about the importance of that opera because my tongue was laden with heaviness and spirits.

There’s nothing cheap about opera seats, but these were front and center. Still, the Banker’s Daughter had to fumble past many uptight patrons for gin and tonics, always claiming the quinine soothed her upset stomach. Intermission caught her double-fisting, talking up “plans for the future.” She was always ahead or behind. I was having another vision altogether. She had fallen asleep in my lap at many shows but somehow this was different. Her beautiful tortured head on my shoulder during the third act was almost more than I could bear. Falling asleep at a rock and roll show could be seen as an act of defiance and rebellion while falling asleep at the opera only conjured despair. It didn’t seem as if anyone noticed but some kind of line had been crossed and it wasn’t getting out of the aisle.

I vividly remember the words from my architect grandfather, “If you don’t cry during La Boheme then you have no soul.” Somehow this had become the measure by which I judged people. Maybe she was crying in her gin-induced sleep? I would never learn the true chemistry of her tears. I would learn that mine were perspiration of the soul. I wasn’t bemoaning the final act of La Boheme. I was sobbing for my own lost future, grieving over a love and a relationship that was never going to happen. Through the roar of the opera crowd I heard Magritte’s favorite passage, “I once was blind but now I see.” I slipped the program in my coat jacket pocket and kept it there for years to come.

We bounced around the city from borrowed apartments to professor’s houses who were on sabbatical. Eventually we landed at an all but empty condo above the Four Seasons Hotel on North Michigan Avenue. We could never tell if her father owned the condo or if it was out on loan. The vacantness of the place whispered about our relationship. The emptiness could be explored as the city opened up its myriad doors. The Banker’s Daughter came home with bags from Bloomingdale’s. My bags were tiny, a small valise to erase all pain. I used a telescope in the living room to see the streets near Cabrini Green. There was one furnished bedroom in the condo. It was beyond minimalistic, a bed and a television. I found cardboard boxes for bed-stands.

The wild thing was we walked on eggshells all the time. We never really recognized we were engaged in such a strange dance. That’s the score when a couple of young rich sociopaths are in love. You’re completely immune to the ordinary. What do I need a passport for? You’re crossing borders and betraying boundaries all the time. You stayed a permanent adolescent, wrapped in renditions of what your family may be cooking up. We were gauzed in an alternative reality, seemingly untroubled by anything and everything. There was more around each corner. There was a beautiful delicate freedom to it all. There were endless numbered nights of going out that all bled together. I didn’t want to dance anymore, I wanted to sway. That’s like the difference between working for someone and working with someone. The Surfers and the Lips quenched a never-ending thirst for psychedelia a Marin County uncle had given me. I watched in a daze as the Lizard courted disaster.

It was Uncle Tupelo that made me sway. I knew exactly where they were coming from. How much would you pay for a ticket that lies out your past, present and future? I caught them at the Lounge Axe, where they peeled the paint off the walls, then laid it back on in strokes of light and hope. I didn’t pay a penny because we were one with the grains of truth. I knew enough to move with the music and follow the anodyne.

The Banker’s Daughter found solace, valediction and a touch of vanity in the office of a psycho-analyst on Michigan Avenue. I continued further down the street to the Art Institute. Each passing through those doors was a reminder that my integrity was not up for grabs. She’d once stayed in Italy a full year to immerse herself in art so she offered me no static for my unorthodox therapy.

I was standing before a massive Georgia O’Keefe, completely mesmerized because I had recently combed some fields down South, walking around fields of bone where a farmer had just let all his cattle go. That was a real graveyard and now I am swimming in a virtual one as well. I adopted O’Keefe’s eye. I am swimming through her brush strokes, gasping for some meaning, finding immense pleasure in her pallet. I could easily be lost at sea when a guard throws me a life jacket. “You know I invented streaking.” I could tell from the sly smile he wasn’t talking technique. It wasn’t an application for the canvas. I just stared at him but the combination of a uniform and a sly smile threw me off. He looked hot under all those clothes. It was foolish of me to imagine his shortcomings or long-comings as I gazed with reverence at the O’Keefe. I did so anyway, drifting in floating landscaped and skulls, perhaps at the intersection of nature and religion. I turned around to say something smart but he was gone.

The last night was complete with defeated inebriation. I told the Banker’s Daughter I was going out for a hot dog to which she cracked, “You don’t even eat that right.” But this was an honest escape; a balancing act of courage, closure and compassion. I wasn’t hitting yet another liquor store and I wasn’t buying smokes or smack. I could hear an authoritative voice from the loudspeaker in the elevator, “The Museum will be closing in twenty minutes. Please make your way toward the exit.”

 

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Edward Ainsworth

About Edward Ainsworth

Edward Ainsworth was born in Mason City, Illinois, and currently lives in Jackson, Mississippi. He studied creative writing at U.C.L.A. Extension and San Francisco State., and has worked as a farm hand, soybean duster, gas station attendant, western boot slinger, mental health technician, half-way house manager, and cemetery plot salesman. He is also the former owner and operator of Atlas Bower Books in Providence, Rhode Island. His books of poetry, “Spinning the Dial” and “Patio Poems”, are available from Blue Press Books, Santa Cruz, California. He is currently writing a biography of comedian John “Dr. Gonzo” Means.
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