Monday, November 30, 2015

Fifth Monday Fiction

Elmer (short story)

By Bob Boldt

North and Clyborn subway stop, Chicago, 10 p.m., December third.
    With a blur of light, the northbound “A” train flashed past with a deafening roar, leaving only the torn wings of fluttering newspapers and an echoing silence in its wake. Far above, the ring of the signal heralding the arrival of the southbound “B” train echoed like a distant winning slot machine paying off.

    A grey man descended the stairs and stood against the wall, his form painted an even more unflattering green in the station’s fluorescent lights. In spite of an oversized overcoat, he seemed to shudder against the cold, huddling to the Florsheim shoe sign on the platform.
    Across the tracks, through the gaps in the concrete support columns, the southbound train was seen loading half a dozen or so partygoers heading to some event, or bar, or some other distraction in the Loop. The high-pitched laughter of the women had a shrill, penetrating, almost desperate-sounding echo.
    The grey man’s face was warmed by the bright red glow of his cigarette, burned nearly to a nub. He rocked nervously back and forth as his hand, allowing one last drag, finally tossed the glowing remnant onto the tracks.

Quiet Knight Bar and Folk Emporium, November 5, 2 a.m.
    “Hey Elmer, play that piece Ravel composed for his friend who lost a hand in the First World War1.”
    “After I get my beer, Richard,” wearily replied the 65 year old, taciturn, one-armed piano player. Belmont Avenue was even quieter than usual for two a.m. on a Monday night. The Quiet Knight Bar and Folk Emporium was locked up tight. Elmer Singer, ex-Spanish Civil War casualty, part-time janitor / piano player / opportunist / drunk and full-time expressionist painter was seated at the upright piano to the left of the stage.
    The bar had been closed for the election, about the only time it ever closed. This event gave a rare opportunity for the owner, Richard Harding, to replace the toilet in the lady’s room that had threatened suicide for months now. The venue had seen all the greats of the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties grace its modest stage: Odetta, Baez, the Weavers, and one night even Dylan himself. The Knight had kind of lost its steam when everything went electric. Erstwhile impresario Richard Harding, the owner, manager, and professional curmudgeon had refused even to install a sound system. Purist that he was, he seemed content to follow his beloved acoustic music into obscurity. The beer found its home on the table closest to Elmer’s good hand and was greeted by the sounds of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, wafting up through the noxious mixture of Elmer’s Gaulois cigarettes, stale beer, and Pine-Sol. Elmer paused a moment to drain half the stein with one long passionate draft.
    “Get a little Jack to kick this brew off some.”
    Richard, pushing broom over by the jukebox, ignored this request.
    “Some kid was in here last night from the University of Chicago, said Maurice Ravel was gay,” Richard shot back.
    “Who gives a fuck, Richard? Your second wife used to say you were gay,” was the reply. To add further emphasis, Elmer began to single-handedly bang out the Marseillaise, his resonant baritone shaking the dust from the rafters:

“Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé....”
    Richard rushed forward, arms extended, pushing the air as if to physically suppress this impromptu musical outburst. “Ravel, damn it! Ravel!”
    Resuming the Left Hand Piano Concerto, Elmer’s single hand flashed across the keys like some independent creature whose memory of this song was somehow deeper and more profound than that of its owner. Elmer’s head was tilted slightly back. His half-closed eyes, reacting a bit to the beer, seemed lost in the space immediately above him. Shaggy white hair, scrubby beard, and the encircling cigarette smoke were all infernally illuminated by the one remaining red neon tube in the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

North LaSalle Street, October 20, 10 p.m.
    Elmer refused to say his Mexican landlady was superstitious. This was in spite of the fact that he thought of himself as something of a self-styled freethinker. Elmer was a devout foe of what he defiantly explained were the twin parasites of the oppressed: religion and Capitalism. He always struck the “Ca” sound in Capitalism as if it were the “Ka” in Marx’s Das Kapital. Few noticed the distinction, or cared. It was not immediately obvious why this iconoclast always treated his devout Catholic landlady with a near fawning, groveling respect. It might have been that she had lost a brother in the same war that had taken his own arm, or perhaps the fact was that he was always at least three months arrears in the rent.
    This night, less than two weeks before Halloween, found him locked out of his apartment by his landlady, shivering on the Near North Side, about to pay a visit to a friend of his. What drove him this autumn night was neither shelter, food, nor drink, but a desire to somehow repossess one of his paintings from an old friend.
    Newly celebrated black actor Nelson Bouvier had bought the work in question dirt cheap one night after many brandies at Elmer’s apartment. Rumors had it that there might have been some gambling involved in the transaction. Our one-armed bandit was now on a mission to somehow beg, borrow, or steal the painting back. He had just conned a North Shore matron of abundant girth and more abundant means into buying it at a fee that would keep him rent-paid and in groceries, drink, and expensive French cigarettes at least until the end of November.
    Of our hero’s many failings and accomplishments, it might be said that his ability as a painter was the only one of the talents that remained a potential source of enough income to allow him to continue his self-indulgent life-style beyond middle age.

In 1934 Elmer Singer had been looking at a promising career as a concert pianist. Born to a comfortable, middle class, Jewish family living in Milwaukee, he had actually studied at Julliard. Overprotected by his mother, Elmer was shy and introverted, especially around the opposite sex. He had two passions in high school: history and music. After his second year at Julliard and the failure of the family’s business in the Midwest, he decided to suspend his studies and join a group of school-sponsored musicians on a tour of the continent. Long story short, he was in Paris when the Spanish Republican resistance was organizing against dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco. It seemed his passion for history was to finally take decisive and tragic precedence over his music.
    He had fallen in with a group of expatriate American art students who convinced him, after a long evening of drinks and diatribes, that the only honorable use of the life of a true idealist was to join his American comrades in the Lincoln Brigade and fight the fascist in Spain. He left that very night. Later that week found him crossing over the Pyrenees into the land of the Spanish Civil War. Unable to fire a gun and of little use in the mess tent, Elmer was assigned as a lookout. He had fulfilled his duties for less than a week when a fascist sniper blew his lower arm and hand away with a lucky shot – lucky, that is, for the sniper. Elmer Singer was twenty, a virgin, and had just smoked his first cigarette the night before this disaster – a French cigarette: a Gaulois.
    Less than a month later, he was on a train from New York to Chicago. Broken in mind and body, afraid to return home and face the ire of his parents, he stayed in Chicago and began what was to become a life that frequently vacillated between joy and despair.
    Having no longer any hope for a career in music, he began painting while crashing in the studio of locally renowned artist Harry Darden. Harry was impressed with the young man’s enthusiasm for the visual arts, if not his initial display of talent. He gave him his first set of oils and brushes, and tutored him. Later, when Elmer’s talent did emerge, Harry introduced him to many of his friends in the Chicago art scene and arraigned for exhibitions with influential gallery owners.

“Nelson! Nelson! Open the goddamned door. It’s Elmer. Elmer, damnit to hell. Come on, it’s cold out here! Neelllsooonn!”
    “Okay okay okay!” came the pleading voice from within. Nelson Bouvier had just sub-letted a valued piece of real estate off LaSalle Street. This was only one of the most ostentatious of the rewards for his recent emergence from the land of penniless, starving actors. The other was the used Aston Martin parked in the adjacent private garage. Nelson owed his fortunate situation to a recent part in a pilot-sequel to Roots. True, it was a supporting role, but the money was good and the anticipated option, should the series be purchased, was enough to catapult him into celebrity status. He got the door open as quickly as he could and hustled his friend inside. Nelson had no intention of alerting his nosey neighbors and the rest of this up-scale, all-white neighborhood to the presence of his mad artist friend.
    “Elmer, for god’s sake where’s your coat? It’s got to be freezing out there.”
    “Trick or treat,” responded Elmer sheepishly, “My land lady locked me out.”
    “Again?” asked Nelson, not really surprised. “Well, come on in. You want to crash here?”
    “No I gotta see a man about a dog.” Elmer hedged, looking around the place. Sure enough, the painting he sought to claim was hanging on the wall to the right of a large natural-stone hearth.
    “I sure could do with a little drinkie – or sumthin’?”
    “Wait right here.” Nelson went to the bar next to an elaborate suspended, circular staircase that ascended in shag-covered splendor to the second floor. Nelson held up a cut-glass decanter half full of amber liquid and gestured toward Elmer.
    “I suppose straight, no rocks, as usual?” he questioned. Hearing no answer, he proceeded to fill a water glass half full of his best whiskey. Elmer was seated in one of the expensive chrome and leather chairs, thumbing through a large monograph of the architect Antoni Gaudi2 that Nelson had put out on his coffee table to impress his “arty-farty” friends, as he called them.
    “I saw this when I was in Spain!” Elmer said, his voice rising with excitement. The folio-sized book was open to a large full-page color photograph of Gaudi’s famous visionary masterpiece, “Sagrada Família,” the Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona3.
    “You can’t imagine how beautiful this is until you see it in the flesh,” Elmer exclaimed, nudging the large volume toward Nelson. Nelson picked up the book as if to look at the picture in question but actually to rescue it from Elmer’s paint stained fingers, which he feared might smudge his prize.
    “So what’s up, old pal?” Nelson’s attempts at solicitousness always fell a little flat. In spite of his accomplishments in drama, he always found it difficult to stifle his dis-ease when in the presence of someone whose needs might be greater than his own. “I heard you got mugged last week,” he said, placing the book into a bookshelf.
    “Yah, a couple of glue sniffers thought I might have some money. Imagine, do I look like I am carrying big bucks? I guess they were too stoned to be much of a judge of character.” He tentatively adjusted the stained bandage circling the elbow of his truncated limb. “…or of ones financial status.” He lifted the glass and swallowed like he was downing a Coke. “You know, years ago I used to do H. The hard stuff. Kicked it in a week. Nasty stuff. They say you can’t do it. I did. Just took mental power, concentration. That was years ago. I doubt if I could have the strength to do it now.”
    “Common Elmer, you’re still one tough son of a bitch.”
    “Don’t you believe it! All this crazy artist shit is good when you have the best years ahead of you. But when you get to be my age you need more than testosterone and strong bourbon to keep your dreams still attached to a body.”
    “Aw come on, Elmer…” Nelson began again but stopped abruptly when he saw his friend’s bandage drop off onto the coffee table. “That thing is filthy!” he said. “I’ve got a fresh bandage in the upstairs bath.”
    “Whatever…” Elmer half-replied. He was secretly eying his painting on the opposite wall.
    “Wait right here. I won’t be a minute,” Nelson said as he climbed the circular stairs to the second floor. It took only five minutes to retrieve a roll of bandage material and some peroxide from the upstairs bath.
    “What the f—” Nelson half-exclaimed as he descended the stair. Elmer and the painting were gone.

North and Clyborn subway stop, December 3, 10:10 p.m.
    The tossed cigarette’s red ash was broken on the third rail of the track and, for a moment, birthed a flash of tiny sparks that died before hitting the rail bed. A woman, heels clattering all the way down the descending subway stairs, entered the station. She was young, attractive, perhaps a secretary. Suspiciously noticing Elmer, she moved to the far end of the platform. In the distance the approach of another “A” train rumbled ominously, coming up from the loop. The “A” train never stopped at North and Clyburn before today. The station is a “B” stop. As it came hurtling in, Elmer, advancing, had just enough time to notice the bored expression on the motorman’s face. Their eyes met briefly before he jumped.
Notes (all entries cited here are from Wikipedia):

  1. Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major (Concerto pour la main gauche en ré majeur) was composed by Maurice Ravel between 1929 and 1930. It was commissioned by the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right arm during World War I. Wittgenstein gave the premiere with Robert Heger and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra” on January 5, 1932. Before writing the concerto, Ravel enthusiastically studied the left-hand etudes of Camille Saint-Saëns.
  2. Antoni Gaudí Cornet (June 25, 1852 – June 10, 1926) – sometimes referred to by the Spanish translation of his name, Antonio Gaudí – was a Catalan architect who belonged to the Art Nouveau movement and was famous for his unique style and highly individualistic designs. On June 7, 1926, Gaudí was run over by a tram. Because of his ragged attire and empty pockets, many cab drivers refused to pick him up for fear that he would be unable to pay the fare. He was eventually taken to a pauper’s hospital in Barcelona. Nobody recognized the injured artist until his friends found him the next day. When they tried to move him into a nicer hospital, Gaudí refused, reportedly saying, “I belong here among the poor.” He died three days later on June 10, 1926, most of Barcelona mourning his death.
  3. Gaudi was an ardent Catholic, to the point that in his later years he abandoned secular work and devoted his life to Catholicism and the construction of his Sagrada Família. He designed it to have 18 towers, 12 for the 12 apostles, four for the four evangelists, one for Mary, and one for Jesus. Soon after work on the Sagrada Família began, his closest family and friends began to die. His works slowed to a halt, and his attitude changed. Perhaps one of his closest family members – his niece Rosa Egea – died in 1912, only to be followed by a “faithful collaborator, Francesc Berenguer Mestres,” two years later. After these tragedies, Barcelona fell on hard times, economically. The construction of La Sagrada Família slowed. Four years later, Eusebi Güell, his patron, died...Because he did not use blueprints for his unfinished masterpiece but worked from his imagination, his fellow workers could not complete it. It is for this that Gaudí is known to many as “God’s Architect.” La Sagrada Família is now, finally, being completed, but differences between his work and the new additions can be seen.
Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt

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