Winnie’s 350-square foot studio that she called home resembled a submarine, she liked to say to strangers, to offer them a quick image of what it was like to live in small spaces. A submarine was dark and hollow, challenged by gravity. Her apartment was on the top floor of a walk-up tenement building in downtown Manhattan, and got afternoon light. But at night she could squint and conjure the resemblance. Not that she’d ever set foot inside of a submarine.
The apartment suited her. She ran her home with a kind of efficiency that came naturally to her. At her doctor’s office job, for example, she had a book of stamps at the ready for paying the odd bill that still required a mailbox. She had lovely tin boxes of tea in her desk, next to a pair of practical black walking flats. That afternoon, she slid them on before clocking out for her lunch hour. She was visiting the Nancy Hoffman gallery in Chelsea, and the show was called “By Land and By Sea.” The paintings were by an artist named Colette Calascione who worked in oils. The collection resembled a confusing circus: children wearing baroque masks; topless mermaids laying in repose on a settee waiting for their ships to come in. Winnie’s favorite, though, was of a young woman in her twenties, her age, wearing a floral-patterned kimono, staring straight out to the viewer, pursed and painted lips, and broadly rouged and transparent skin. In her arms was a rufus-colored monkey, and she held it like a baby. When she moved around the room, taking in the other ten paintings spaced out along the whitewashed walls, she kept circling back to that one. It was a magnetic pull that she couldn’t break free from, and she tried to understand its power over her. Was it the kimono? Was it the way the monkey resembled a child? At 27 she became aware of such thoughts and wondered if they would accompany a primal yank to childrearing, but that was a sensation that never followed through. Sometimes she tried to imagine it—her stomach growing round, her hand in a nonexistent lover’s—but in the end, the image had about the same pull for her as the next thing on her to-do list.
On the opposite wall, a slim mermaid lay on her stomach on a settee with her scaled tail articulated into the air, like a scared cat. She stared out the window to the sea. She wasn’t in the water, but she looked so wet. Winnie pondered the word wet and felt a tug at her ovaries. At the front desk were a pile of postcards, and one was of the monkey girl. As she was leaving, she picked one up and tucked it into her bag.
Dee’s Laundry was on Winnie’s street, and she walked past him every morning and every night. Dee was an old man who more resembled a long praying mantis than a human. He could have been plucked from a hundred years ago, stirring a giant cauldron with steam rising from it, in his hand something closer to an oar than a big wooden spoon. Dee’s storefront was semi-underground, so even though he was so tall, Winnie had to peer down to watch him stir with his big wooden oar. He had a lit cigarette perpetually dangling from his lip, and his glasses were thick circles, two full moons reflecting the monotony of his days. Back at home in her submarine, she propped up the postcard on a little fold-out table that doubled as dining area and desk. It caught her eye whenever she walked by. Monkey girl was a friend, a sibling, she might have been her. There was an archaic Orientalism in the painting that gave her a rush, a swooping feeling that she wanted to chase.
The next day at work, the image lingered as she spun blood samples for the doctors and processed insurance claims. Later, walking down the street, it flashed across her mind in between the things she needed from the drugstore: toothpaste, paper towels, the girl in the kimono holding the monkey, Band-aids.
When she was a young girl, her mother took her for what she called Adventure Walks. They emerged from their front door, and her mother would say, “You choose which direction we go!” If they went North, they would end up at Washington Square Park. If they went West, they’d end up by the Hudson River. If they went East, they’d end up near a maze of overgrown parks, converted from empty lots. There were meaningful totems in each direction, and there would always be another adventure walk ahead, but it was still agony choosing each time.
On a cool Autumn night that she never forgot, she chose east, slipped her hand into her mother’s, and began their little journey. They moved down the long avenue blocks, past stately row houses dotted with historical plaques and stoops well-tended with potted plants. When they reached the corner of Norfolk and Rivington, she saw a mound of feathers on the sidewalk. Coming closer, she saw that a bird on its back, impressive for its colors. Its wings resembled white and black checkered linoleum, like the kind she saw in Di Roberti’s old Italian pastry shop. Its head was bright red, as if it were wearing a piece of red armor. Its breast was speckled with black and white polka dots that contrasted with its checkered wings. The bird was an odd triptych: one wing was hinged outward, pointing to the street; the other was pulled in, as if it were protecting something precious. The sidewalk around it mottled with black spots of gum.
“Oh the poor thing,” Winnie’s mother said. “Must have been a bird strike.”
“What’s a bird strike?” asked Winnie, who at seven years old hadn’t heard those two words strung together. Bird, yes. Strike, yes; in slivers of stories from the evening news her mom watched, but Bird Strike together was new to her. Winnie approached the bird and bent down to touch it. The wing flapped, and startled, she jerked her hand away. “It must have just happened,” her mother said. “It’s probably in shock. Let’s see if we can get it some place that’s more comfortable.” Winnie’s mother had thrown on a tea-colored scarf before they left their apartment. She unwrapped it from her neck and used it to scoop up the bird. There was very little fight left, but its eyes blinked. To Winnie, they looked like tiny black marbles. “Let’s take it to the Hands Garden on 6th Street.” The garden was one of Winnie’s favorite spots. It had a little treehouse against the far fence that was painted an unnatural shade of bright green. Her mother once threw a birthday party for her there. Her party had landed on a rainy day, and she was scared nobody would come. But there was a small stage with an overhang, and Winnie’s mom risked it. After the clouds broke, her friends began to show up an hour late, and the afternoon spilled gracefully into a long, warm evening. Even in the city fireflies bobbed in and out of the trees. Even in the city turtles poked their heads from the small, manmade pond.
When they arrived at the garden, Winnie chose a place to set the bird. The treehouse seemed too open. Near the turtle pond a group of shrubs had a clearing in the center. She remembered playing hide and seek there during her birthday party. She took the scarf with the bird from her mother’s hands and crawled through the shrubs. She knelt down and unwrapped it. Its features twitched, its eyes blinked. “You’re going to be okay,” she whispered, and pet its red armored cap. You’re a good girl, and you’re going to be okay.” That evening with her mother, the adventure walk had panned out, as promised. Winnie’s walks had grown longer with each year. When she was little, her mother held her close, and when she grew up, she released her into the city with a resigned, benign neglect. Winnie was free, she could have gone anywhere. She could have gone to a place where she sat on a settee and looked out of a window at the sea, or she could have gone somewhere where she could hold in her arms a monkey, but instead she found her way four flights up into a studio apartment.
At home Winnie sat holding the monkey girl postcard under a desk lamp. What if the girl in the painting held a bird, instead? What if she held a turtle? What if she ended up in the Hands Garden after taking an adventure walk? From the gallery where she hung on the wall, she could have found her way there. She could have stepped outside, walked east, then south.
The monkey in the postcard, she noticed, wore a red vest and held a fan. The girl’s gaze met her own, but the monkey looked slightly downward into the distance, lost in his thoughts. They stood against a black background. There was no window, there was no door, there was no one coming for them. He could stir the air with his fan, and she could cling to him for warmth. She wore a shallow tiara, the Queen of her tiny domain. Her red lips were a perfect bow, and she neither smiled nor frowned. Receding from the darkness of the background, there was the unseen. The stars, planets, clouds, explosions, rainstorms.
When the sun dipped, darkness was left behind. The afternoon light in the submarine grew murkier. But hold the gaze of the girl, and the pinpricks of light began to shine through, one at a time, until Winnie thought she might get lift-off. There might be a kind of rapture for her after all, pulling her into the ether from her submarine, a warm monkey in her arms, the beating fan lifting them up and away, beyond the darkness of these deep waters. She could be anywhere. She could be walking in any direction, looking for home, finding it on the top floor of a tenement, four flights of stairs to climb. She could be finding it in a carriage house, tucked behind a Greenwich Village wall outfitted with security cameras. She could be finding it in a cabin surrounded by chirring red winged blackbirds, taking up a cause with a chorus.
It’s all so big once you adjust your sights, Winnie thought. It’s all so reachable. Start with an adventure walk, your hand slipped into your mother’s. Bend down and pick up a stricken bird, and leave the stunned fowl beneath a tree in a garden named after Hands. Move through each corridor of the city, through each phase of a life, with laundromats and a praying mantis stirring a cauldron of clothes with an oar. Set up in a place where squinted eyes can look into the sky and watch the pinpricks burst into stars. The bottom of the ocean is visible from the submarine, but so is the refraction of the light where the sun hits the water.
- A Review of MIRACLES COME ON MONDAYS by Penelope Cray - August 30, 2020
- The Monkey and the Girl - December 9, 2019