Life in the Village
a short story
This story began as a writing challenge. We were given 140 words not usually seen in today’s literature and asked to write a short story that used all of them. With a dictionary in one hand, I began to write. Much to my surprise, this was the result. I like it. See what you think.
The prodigious and selcouth writer bent over his desk and hammered away on the keyboard of his typewriter. Yes, typewriter. He had no use for such profound accommodations as computers and cell phones and even was known to eschew automatic transmissions in cars and to ridicule those who employed them. His name among the residents of MacDougal Street was Love, for he knew nothing of it. His agnomen among the more progressive writers he knew was Stone Age Man.
He was a hard man, a man to sling mud and food, as well as words on a page, yet a man who imagined himself to be academically, altruistically, allegorically, philosophically, and metaphorically metaphysical in his approach to the written word. Never did it occur to him that his banal verbiage might be less invigorating to others than it was to him. Never did he admit that he might ponder the effects of his words on those who read them.
He was nondenominational; in fact, he was quite openly atheistic in his approach to life. Peace, he achieved in his spirit after he had written soaring, raging tales of fantasy, paradox, and even rhetoric. Never did he admit that he felt any gratitude for his talent for writing. Intuitively, he never considered that he might have served in his nation’s military; why, such was no more than yesterday’s patriotic gesture and surely nothing to be required of him! He never honored days of remembrance.
Zenith was a street urchin, temperate while a rebel and something of a gypsy in dress and darkness of skin. Her nerve existed within and allowed her to make her point with her facial expressions: heartbroken tears, one moment; verve, the next; and outright despair after that. And, yet, there was a sense of love beneath it all, as if she felt free to be herself as she was, owing nothing to anyone. At the same time, she seemed mystical as she played an ivory-colored xylophone, tapping out the blues and soul music. In every way, she was an innocuous creature, symbolizing innocence as much as victimization.
Joe, who sold newspapers on the corner said that people, even gypsies wearing imitation jewels, like their counterparts in long-ago, far-away backwoods places, surely must be from Uranus or some other far-flung planet. Each night, he closed his newsstand up tight and locked the roll-down grate over the window as though he feared Zenith would break in and steal last week’s edition of the Sunday Times.
Such fear was a part of urban life and reverberated through the trees that lined and shadowed the sidewalk before the shop. As the grate slammed against the pavement, Zenith looked up from the discarded cupcakes she had rescued from behind the mini-mart and, with sadness in her eyes and questions in her mind, looked sadly after his departing figure.
The writer watched the goings on down below his cold-water flat, at least as well as he could over the awning, which cantilevered out, over the sidewalk, directly beneath him. Immediately below was an art school established by two Irish brothers, whose dedication precluded dreaming as they strove to have their works displayed in the Metropolitan Gallery. Both already had won the prestigious St. Gaudan’s Medal in Fine Art. Love snorted indignantly as he watched the younger brother roll in the awning as he prepared to go home. Home was across the East River, in Brooklyn. That one might make it big one day, but not as an artist; he was too emotional. As an actor, perhaps? Yes, an actor. He needed to pack up his canvasses and move up to Broadway. That was where he belonged.
Love’s gaze turned away from the artist and to the beautician, who emerged from the salon down the street. Her hair was yellow with peroxide, and she belched from flatulence. She was married to Joe at the newsstand. How the man could stand to be married to the woman was beyond Love’s comprehension. It was a common misconception that they rode to work together on the subway. In reality, Joe always found a reason to go in early and stay late. Love knew that for a fact, for he had heard Joe say that marriage to Fiona was hazardous to his health. He likened her to a doppelganger of his departed, thoroughly evil mother.
For the preservation of his sanity, if not his life, Joe was seeing Lettie on the side, as evidenced by the afterglow that colored his face each Wednesday night, when he emerged from her basement flat. A few people on MacDougal Street waited for the day (or night) when Joe and Fiona collided as each vied for the affection that was thwarted by the state of their marriage. Everyone agreed on one thing: Joe felt no remorse for his dalliances.
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” a voice cried out in adamant tones. The voice, which droned superfluously, belonged to old No-Name, whom some claimed was demented. He came out each and every day to proclaim that the end of the world was at hand and implore all who heard him to repent of their sins. Love had seen No-Name grant absolution to more than one passer-by.
“Here, No-Name. Take this sandwich and shut up,” a voice rang out.
Love leaned farther out his window in time to see the deli owner giving no-name one of the sandwiches that had not sold during the noon rush. He knew that the deli owner also bequeathed the esculents to Zenith. Why, the waif would dry up and blow away if it weren’t for the deli owner, whose name might as well have been No-Name. In actual fact, his name was so long, convoluted, and foreign that no one could remember, let alone pronounce, it.
In the free clinic, Doc Myers had found the Germaine twins to be asymptomatic and was inoculating them against the usual childhood illnesses. Tommy Germaine played with a roadtrain of tandem gondolas. Each of the wooden cars was painted a bright and cheerful color; the set had belonged to his father. His twin, Timmy, was playing with a set of magicians hoops, which he alternately interlocked and separated. Not knowing what they were called, he referred to them alternately as “the whatchamacallit” and “the thingamajig.” The names worked as well as the thingamajigs worked to distract Timmy as Doc slipped the needle into his arm.
Soon, the twins and their mother had departed from the clinic. With the rambunctious boys out of sight, Doc gave a weary sigh and walked over to wash his hands before he saw his next patient. If he had realized how trying children could be, he’d have specialized in dermatology, instead of family medicine. But that was warped, end-of-the-day thinking. Down deep, Doc knew he loved the work he was doing.
The following morning, on his way to the free clinic, Doc stopped by the art school. He had passed every morning since the Irish brothers had opened for business, and he had admired the paintings and sketches he saw on display through the window. Now, he saw one of the brothers critiquing a work for a student. The painting depicted a buttercup, but it was not a very good one.
“While most are yellow or white, a few species are orange or even red,” the student explained to the instructor.
“Good! That gives you more options. But flower petals are whorled,” the instructor explained. “One is laid upon the next, upon the next, until it all comes full circle. Like this.” Taking a sketch pad, he showed the student how to draw a blossom.”
Doc did not linger, lest he embarrass the student. Instead, he began studying the works that hung on the walls. An old Mediterranean fishing boat was bright aqua, while the building behind it was the color of sand, its roof the color of terra cotta. Together, the boat and the building reflected the colors of the sea and shore, almost as if allegorically. The parts or pieces of the picture – the boat, the building, the shadows that were cast across them – were jigsawed together to form an incredible whole. The profundity of the effect was strong; it captured the doctor’s eye and allowed him to look at no other painting. Never before had the doctor felt such an aesthetic pull toward such a simple work of art. Truly, it had been a labor of love for the artist. Truly, as well, this was an artist who would go far in his chosen field.
A glance at his watch told Doc that he would have to pull himself away from this wonderland and continue on his way to the clinic. The call of his first patients’ arrival was beckoning. Offering a simple “thank you” to the artist, Doc took his leave. He had walked no more than a few steps when he heard cruel laughter emanating from above. Looking up, he saw the writer leaning from his apartment window.
“Surely, you didn’t find anything worth looking at in that so-called art school!” Love was fairly screaming.
“Quite the contrary. In fact, I imagine that, before the day is over, I shall succumb and purchase that delightful fishing boat.”
Love looked quizzically at the doctor but said nothing. Instead, as Doc continued on his way, Love sat back, folded his arms across his chest, and lowered himself into his vat of misery. A lullaby once hummed to him by his mother slid quietly from his lips. It was an obscure melody; chances were he did not remember where he first had heard it. In his despondency, he did not notice the ambulance that sped past with its lights flashing and siren wailing.
Zenith was awakened by the noise and looked up from her bed – old blankets atop cardboard – and watched as two women ran past. How heavenly their brand-new jogging suits and running shoes appeared. For a brief moment, Zenith imagined that, one day, she would own fine clothes like the women wore who were moving into the neighborhood. MacDougal Street was changing. The Yuppies were finding it and taking it for themselves. Soon, someone from the city would come and insist that Zenith pack up and move on. She would. What choice would she have? That would be a sad day. For all its problems – the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow – her little place on MacDougal Street possessed a certain ambience, one she did not want to lose. Sitting up, Zenith took a deck of cards and began dealing a hand of Solitaire; it was the first of many hands she would deal that day. As she played, she read a story in one of the many old newspapers providing insulation in her home. Officials in Florida were searching the Okefenokee Swamp for a missing man.
Meanwhile, Joe was grabbing up two bundles of magazines, which a distributor had just dropped off. He paused for a moment to study the cover of one and thought to himself how much Lettie would enjoy wearing a sweater like the one the model was wearing. Ah, Lettie! She was as tenacious as a bulldog, yet as gentle as a lamb; from head to toe, a figment of his whimsical, youthful imagination about what his wife would be like. Except that she wasn’t his wife. Joe didn’t mind that; she was still his and would be for a nice, long time – unless Fiona came after him with an axe or a whip. It was too easy to imagine Fiona with an axe or a whip. That worried Joe.
In the early afternoon, the city building inspector emerged from the stairwell in an old tenement, spouting off issues so rapidly that the contractor at his side barely could keep up with him as he jotted down the offenses in order to remedy them.
“The wiring is non-compliant for size and load. The plumbing isn’t properly vented. The structure in the newer addition is rudimentary, at best. The bathroom doesn’t even have functionality; you might as well call it a closet with pipes.”
“That’s fine,” the contractor insisted. “It will all be stripped out and done properly.”
“It had better be. By the way, have you heard whether the neighborhood association is sending a delegation to the city council meeting this afternoon?”
“That’s the rumor,” the contractor replied as he lit his Meerschaum pipe. “Word is it will be a convergence of very angry people, who want these old buildings to look and function like new ones and these homeless people carted out of here.”
“Yeah. We see this every time the affluent take over one of these old neighborhoods,” the inspector grumbled. “Me, on my paltry salary, I’m starting to wonder where the homeless are supposed to live. The slum lords used to put up with them, but the city put them out of business on account of the rats and roaches. Tore down those buildings. Now, the yuppies are driving them out of the streets. I tell you, this liberation of the masses is going to be the downfall of this city!”
Later that afternoon, Mick Chandler walked into Casey’s Bar and called out happy salutations to the gathering crowd.
“Hey, Case! A round for house!”
“You win the lottery or something?”
“Or something. I got promoted!”
“Careful, Mick. There’s nothing so pernicious as celebrating a raise or a promotion before the first paycheck’s in hand.” The advice came from Charlie, who sat on the last stool at the end of the bar, as he always did.
“Bosses are real piranhas where promotions are concerned,” John affirmed from his seat across the room.
“Wormy… eely… not to be trusted,” Alex agreed. “Thanks, Mick, but hold onto your money. We’ll buy our own until you get that first paycheck.”
“Gee! You guys are real friends,” Mick replied as he studied his long-time friends with a lucidity he had not possessed before.
“I got two rules I always live by, Mick,” John said in reply. “First, leave your personal business unspoken. Ain’t nobody’s business, anyway. Second, save for every contingency, for the rainy day, if you get my drift. It don’t pay to spend your money on celebrating. Sooner or later, you’ll wish that money was back in your pocket.”
“You got that right, John!”
In that instant, Casey dropped a glass, piercing the thoughtful moment. Broken shards went flying in all directions. Cheers arose from those gathered.
“Aw, hell! I spend more on glasses than I do on the booze,” the bartender spat as he reached for broom and dustpan.
Such was life in The Village.
Note: Life in The Village is a vignette of life, the casual observer watching the goings on along a block of MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New York. It might have been set in the days of the Great Depression, or it might be set today. We don’t know until the very end.
© 2011. Virginia Tolles. All rights reserved.