Chapter 1: Just like Clay leaning over Liston
“A sort of Wife of Bathsheba’s Tale?” she said. The old lady shook her head, then shook her head again. “What does that even mean?”
This wasn’t going well. This really wasn’t going well at all.
“I still don’t get it. Again, please,” she said, impatiently. “Exactly why did you get thrown out?”
Jonathan Head took a breath and stole another glance at her. “Like I was saying, this was for my senior thesis, in April, just a few months ago. God, it seems like years ago. I got the word: they were going to give me the big space. Well, maybe it did go to my head a bit. But I got to work right away. And when it came time for the opening, I have to say, the installation looked great. I had projected a street map of the city onto three walls of the gallery. Each artifact was mounted, along with a wall label, at the location on the map where it was… collected. On the fourth we showed a loop of the video.”
The two of them were sitting at a table at the end of a long room overlooking the Bowery. The young man took in Sarah Her’s famous white hair, with the straight-cut bangs, swaying back and forth as she moved her head. This was her Drawing room, he’d been informed.
“That’s it?” she said, shaking her head again. “That’s all? The insurance companies were coming after you. So what? You were on the hook for thirty thousand for all those BMW hood ornaments. Big deal. Lots of people have gotten away with worse. I mean, we’re talking about the Rhode Island School of Design. I would have expected you to end up with a fellowship, so you could make a project out of your pre-trial hearings. I’ve never heard of anyone getting expelled from RISD for something like this.”
“Well,” Jonathan looked away, “a lot of it has to do with my video. It shows me leaning over each BMW –”
“Oh, now it’s your video? Yours?” the old lady said sharply, “I thought it was your girlfriend who produced it.”
This Jonathan was taking up space and time, especially time, in her world – this Jonathan Head, this skinny white kid. His hair looked like he’d been sleeping in it for the last week or so, and his face looked like it was months and months, perhaps years and years, away from deciding what it wanted to be when it finished growing up. In his tired-looking jeans and his wrinkled oxford shirt that was a little past the point of looking like it was supposed to be as wrinkled as it was, and his entirely dolorous-looking sneakers,
downright downtrodden, very close to utterly defeated as any athletic shoes could be. What was he even doing here? She’d clean forgotten. Oh right… it came back to her.
“She just shot the footage. I did all the editing and the sound –”
“– Fine, fine,” the old lady interrupted again. “No doubt this work was compelling and persuasive, a devastating critique of late-stage capital, but, as long as you were willing to pay the fines and return the badges, I should have thought you would have ended up the darling of the department.”
“Well,” he said again, “actually, it did have something to do with the department. With Bathsheba. You’re probably acquainted with –”
“– Of course, I know her.”
The old lady spoke in clipped peremptory sentences. Why was he still here, in this white room, at this long, bare Nakashima refectory table? She was going to throw him out soon, he could just tell. “And her wife, Astrid. I know them both.”
So he began the story again. This was the third time. “When we went out at night we’d ride around town, near campus, between RISD and Brown, until we came across a BMW. They’re not that hard to find. Penny would start recording. I’d pry the badge off the car, wave at her with it, and off we’d go. Later, we’d use the GPS to mark the spot – where I – where we – collected it. Then, when it came time to install the piece, I fixed the hundred forty-four badges to those three walls of the gallery on which the map of the city was projected, right at the locations where I’d found them, along the labels noting the date and time…”
“You already told me this.” She turned her head and looked out the window. Across the street, on the east side of the Bowery, along a block lined with restaurants, each bar’s busboy was setting up his sidewalk tables for lunch. She was getting bored, he could tell.
“We only ever came across one M5 badge” he resumed, hesitantly. “You don’t see a lot of them. I found it at the corner of Benefit and Meeting Street. Turns out it belonged to Bathsheba herself. Bright and early the morning after I took their badge, it turns out, Bathsheba got on the phone and filed a claim with her carrier. Actually, Astrid took care of it. In their marriage she did that stuff, insurance, bills, things like that.
Bathsheba told her that the car had been hit the night before, when she was in Boston, at a fundraising dinner for the Friends of one of the museums. The funny thing is, I wondered if it might be hers when I came across it that night. At the time, I thought she’d find it all amusing. That should have been the end of it… except for what happened the night of the opening.”
Did the old lady seem a little more interested now? She turned back to him.
“Well, Bathsheba was there of course. She was being lovely to me. And no one was looking at the work; it was an opening after all. Then, towards the end, but when there were still lots of faculty and administration hanging out, working their way to the bottom of the buckets of Stella, Astrid showed up. Somehow Astrid was drawn to that M5 badge.”
Jonathan looked out the window again. Honking Suburbans clogged the Bowery, waiting for the light to change at Houston Street.
He went on, “No one had really leaned in and looked at the piece. I was watching her. I felt kind of flattered by the attention. Then she walked past the video being projected against the fourth wall. It was a kind of montage of the different jobs. You could hear us talking, see me jumping off the bike, running around, pulling the screwdriver from my pocket, laughing as we rode away, car alarms going off now and then. Astrid happened to look up at the projection just when it was running the actual footage of me taking their very own badge. What were the odds of that? She noticed and stopped. She recognized her car. She also recognized the building it was parked in front of. It wasn’t their house.
“I’d never seen anyone do a spit-take before. Astrid did one, right in front of me. I watched her quickly walk back to the M5 badge and read the label next to it. She was doing the math. She realized that their BMW had been parked in front of Bathsheba’s old flame’s house the night Bathsheba claimed she’d been at that benefit in Boston. The car hadn’t been vandalized in Boston, but right there in Providence. Of course, it was
being vandalized by me. And while it was being vandalized Bathsheba must have been in bed with her ex, that bitch. After swearing up and down that she was never going to see her again.”
Jonathan looked back from the window, glanced at Sarah Her, then continued.
“What happened next was almost too… too perfect, if that’s the right word. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Astrid catch sight of us and grab one of the Stellas by the neck. Bathsheba had just finished introducing me to a Chinese high school junior and her parents. ‘Yes, this Jonathan is special. We don’t just give every senior a one-man show upon graduation. Actually, only one every year. And this year it’s him. I know you two have been building a collection. My advice: keep your eye on him.’ She then launched into a disquisition on Korean-style barbecue food trucks in Back Bay Boston. They were touring the New England art schools. Astrid walked right up to Bathsheba. The Stella was still capped. It was pretty heavy with all that beer inside. And she clocked her a good one.
“She caught Bathsheba right across the temple. Knocked her clean out. As she stood over her,” Jonathan balled his hands into fists and essayed a pose, “She looked just like Clay leaning over Liston in Lewiston. And everyone there, every single tenured member of the department and all of the post-grads, as well as all the graduating seniors and most of their parents, was then treated, courtesy of Astrid, to a detailed
précis of each instance of Bathsheba’s infidelity during their marriage, the volume of which was kind of impressive – a marriage which, Astrid made a point of reiterating repeatedly – was to be considered terminated as of that moment.”
Sarah Her seemed to be smiling now. Was that a smile?
“And how is it that you know about Clay and Liston?” she asked.
“Oh,” Jonathan colored slightly, “one of my old roommates. He freelanced for some sports nostalgia site.”
She was clearly smiling now.
“Yes,” she said, “I remember now. I did hear about them breaking up, but not Why.”
A thin, not entirely kind smile.
“Well, that could indeed get you thrown out of RISD. That would do it,” Sarah Her said.
“And so, here we are,” he said.
She didn’t appear to hear him.
“What about the police? And the girlfriend? Penny?”
“There was money for a decent lawyer,” Jonathan looked down – as if there was something about the mention of money. Did he look embarrassed? As if pained to admit that there was money? Family money, presumably. She was looking at him again. He was pained about something.
“It was agreed that all charges would be dropped if I just gave back the badges, paid the damages and left town. And didn’t come back for ten years. As for Penny, she didn’t get expelled. She’s in a different department. That department’s chair hates Bathsheba. Something to do with budgets. There was some dirty pool when it came to refurbishing the seminar rooms a few years ago. He hasn’t forgiven her. I’m not
sure exactly what’s going on now, though. I think Penny might be sleeping with him. I haven’t heard from her since I got on the bus.”
“Oh, I am sorry.” Another smile. This one entirely unkind, not hostile or angry, just scrubbed of feeling, at least any that he could recognize. “And just a week before you were going to graduate.”
The old lady pushed back her chair abruptly, rose to her feet and briskly rubbed her hands together. She pulled her cashmere shawl across her shoulders. She seemed to be entirely in cashmere: turtleneck, long narrow skirt, wide, fringeless, double-folded shawl, all variations of gray. She drew it tighter even though it was a warm early summer afternoon.
“I wish,” she said, “I could help you… you…”
It was clear to him that she had no seen reason to commit his name to memory. Sarah Her had found it increasingly convenient of late to feign that she was losing her memory. What easier way to let someone know where he stands than to give him the impression that he’d made such a little impression that she couldn’t be bothered to remember his name.
“It’s Jonathan Head, but –”
“’Ah, ‘Head’ would have worked. I never give three syllables to an assistant.Dogs get two, assistants one. But you’re not going to be my assistant.”
“– But this is my last –”
“I’m sorry, young man,” Sarah Her said, briskly. “It is true that I have what some would call an unlovely weakness for young ‘uns like you. I readily admit it. Why not? I’m an old lady. Who’s going to criticize me now? When it comes to assistants, I have a predilection for cosseted and clueless white kids. And you do have the stink of the trust fund upon you. I can always tell. There’s been a long parade of ones just like you
through here. And despite the fact that you can spin a decent yarn – and everyone knows that I like a picaresque tale – despite all of that: no. No, no, no. I could never have someone like you in this studio.”
She shook her head. He was standing now too. She had taken him by the arm, guiding him out of the room.
This was really it.
They were on the landing now. The elevator was there but she led him down the stairs. She kept shaking her head as they reached the ground floor. She opened the double doors to the street and extended a thin arm across the lintel.
Still, it was ending so fast.
She shook her head once more and then slammed the doors shut, delivering her last words in a decidedly energetic, almost jaunty tone. As if just being able to utter them gave her a certain, discrete joy. As if this was the name of a certain dessert she didn’t treat herself to all that often, but which always occasioned no small measure of pleasure when it happened to be served to her. He stared at the gleaming black doors.
“Heads up, Head! I’m sure you’re heading for something heady!”
Michael Gottlieb is a New York poet and the author of twenty-one books, including collections of memoir and essays. His latest, Mostly Clearing, was published by Roof Books in 2019. His next, Selected Poems, will be brought out by Chax in the Fall of 2021. His poem about 9/11, 'The Dust,' was staged at the Poetry Project at St. Marks on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. A new adaptation of that poem, produced by The Poetry Project and directed by Genée Coreno, will be staged this fall, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, along with a dramatization of his poem about Covid and NYC, 'The Voices,' which was excerpted in Exquisite Pandemic and can be found in the Archive here.
an excerpt from
WHAT IS TO
a novel by