I changed mine in February. After ten years of working on and off on The Scarf Dance, my 19th century novel fraught with Sturm und Drang, I decided I needed to let some light in. I wanted to allow myself contemporary free-flow, unbounded by mannerly constraints. And, so, without warning, I began a fresh adventure, an urban fantasy -- if that's what the genre is -- I don't really know. I'll worry about what kind of animal I'm feeding once it's cut all its teeth.
What I am certain of is the setting, the characters and their fascinating story and what stumps me is that I cannot recall how I arrived at it. Usually, I can tell you exactly when a story idea came to me, even where I was or what I was eating. But, in this case, I am drawing a blank. All I know is that something propelled me to read about Egyptian cat mummies and from there, a labyrinth of plot and people and my favourite city, New York, got all mixed together like a sidewalk sale or swap meet under navy awnings. The contents of the assorted tables seem to have no relation one to the other, but, en masse they comprise a perfect tableau, a harmonious swath of pointillism. And each tiny dot is connected to the others.
I find the blank in my memory both alarming and amazing. I am not going to argue with it. So maybe I don't know how or why the story arrived, but it's here now, and it's calling my name. That is all that matters.
Carol Krenz 2011
When Zeno Cavallos agreed to paint Isobel Mansfield’s library at 34 Gramercy Park East, he changed her life forever.
He never knew this because his was a walk-on part in her play; it was, however, a pivotal role that set off an unexpected chain of events the way a spoon of Breakstone’s cottage cheese sent her running for root canal. Her endodontist said that a hair-line fracture could live undetected above or below the gum line for years until one day – when you least expected it – bam.
Isobel understood that Cavallos’ deed was purely unintended, like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern in her barn that started the fire that burned down Old Chicago. (Of course, she knew the cow story wasn’t true but everyone believed it.)
And so a question lingered in her mind about Cavallos – was what he did fated to happen like her root canal? Or, was it really a random cow accident of the universe? Either way, she could not have anticipated it.
What would she have noticed, anyhow? A paunchy tradesman in white overalls and mustache, looking fastidiously like Super Mario, who was inspecting the apartment with professional admiration, eyeing the ceilings and crown moldings as if they were the Sistine Chapel.
“Beautiful,” he said, stopping at each fireplace to trace the veins in the marble. He praised the wide-plank oak flooring. “This place is all original isn’t it?”
“Yes. My family moved in when it was built. 1893, I think.”
They finished their tour and settled in the library.
Cavallos asked, “So, what’s it going to be? We do the whole room?”
“No, just three walls.” She handed him paint chips. “I like the Pale Iris. And, I think the wainscoting would look wonderful if you could make it the same sandy colour as the wallpaper.”
“You serious? You will save that wallpaper?”
“Yes. My great-great-grandfather put it there. It’s old, but I love it.”
“Ah, family. I understand. You like to feel close. What’s that pattern? Egypt?”
“Yes…hieroglyphs.” She stroked the paper. “Please, promise you’ll be careful?”
He straightened up, eyes narrowing – he couldn’t have been more than five-foot-three – and suddenly the room filled with the towering presence of his wounded pride – a puffed up fire-breathing dragon with leathery wings and phosphorescent scales. “I always take care. I always do an excellent job--”
She shrank from him. “Oh--I’m sure you do. I didn’t mean--”
A final blast through the nostrils and the beast retreated. Cavallos’ smile returned and he moved on as though nothing had happened. Isobel marveled at the volatile temperament of artists. She wondered if there was a Mrs. Cavallos at home in a sackcloth and ashes who faithfully trimmed the dragon’s nails and polished its wings with leather balm.
“What about the ceiling?” he asked.
“Do you think it needs it?”
“No, it doesn’t, but it will look dirty surrounded by new paint. Put your Pale Iris there, and do the moldings white. I will make you beautiful work.”
“Terrific. How soon can you start?”
Jeffrey was due home in three days. Jeffrey, not five-foot-three, but six-foot-four, incredibly handsome, neurotic, and a social phobe which was funny considering his business was the lecture circuit. He’d object to this invasion of privacy. He was obsessive and paranoid about his possessions and kept them under wraps.
Cavallos said, “I can start now, if you help me move stuff. If it’s a rush job, I get Nino, my partner.”
Were there any people left in New York who didn’t think everything was a rush job?
Together they pulled furniture into the centre. She removed the Handel lamp to the dining area. Once Cavallos had submerged the bookshelves and the Charles de Gaulle desk under a waterfall of sheeting, he left to buy the paint. Farrow & Ball. Old-world limewash, elegant and light absorbing. As restful as a tomb.
In Cavallos’ wake, a vibration filled the air – like the whirr of a million humming birds – which entered her ears and washed over the back of her neck. She was attuned to these sensations to greater and lesser intensities. This one felt exciting. Good vibes. A good day.
She brewed an espresso, lit a Moods Filter cigarillo, and called Lydia to say she was going to stay home.
Lydia balked. “Izz, you’re heavily insured. They’re bonded and management approved. Why stay?”
“I dunno…I suppose you’re right…”
“Of course I’m right. Lock up your cashmeres, throw the silver into a large bag of kitty litter--”
“I don’t have a cat--”
“Who cares? You should always have kitty litter around. And, don’t forget to stick all the remotes in the washing machine.”
“Gawd, Lydia. Where do you get all this stuff? Who’s gonna steal remotes?”
“Not steal them. Use them to watch porn on the cable channels.”
“I’m staying home.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m only half joking. Besides, guess what just came in? Your rhino roaches. I draw the line at roaches, Izz. You unpack ‘em, not me.”
“Did you see them? Are they all right?”
“I told you, I won’t even touch the box. And it’s a big box.”
“They’re dead, Lydia, they’re dead.”
“They better be. I see you have Bloomberg’s number on your speed dial…”
“Lydia, Bloomberg isn’t interested in dead roaches. He’s too busy chasing bedbugs.”
“Just get in here, okay? You, me, the roaches, we’ll have a regular picnic.”
“All right. About an hour, then. I still have to get dressed.”
When she finished her coffee, she strolled the hallway to the living room, making note of the paintings. It was foolish to feel nervous – Cavallos was recommended. Nevertheless, there was one thing she would not risk damaging or losing – Mr. Ruggles, who was perched under treated glass on his marble pedestal. His round head faced the windows overlooking the park.
“C’mon, my sweet baby,” she said, cautiously lifting the glass. His lattice-work linen wrappings were exquisite, his crooked nose wide and long. When she stroked it she sensed velvety fur and a Burmese face underneath. She carried him gingerly to her bedroom and placed him in the recesses of a closet. His vacant eyes regarded her with perpetual curiosity. “See ya, Ruggles,” she whispered and shut the door.
Forty minutes later she was dressed like Beau Brummell – Tuesdays were Beau Brummell day. Cavallos and his partner, Nino, returned to find her in riding boots, black skinny pants, white-collared shirt with a blue silk cravat, a vest, and a black cutaway jacket.
She stopped to finger-comb her long bangs in the foyer, saluted the men, and left.
Outside on the curb, narrow trees, most of them Aspens, tossed their heads back and forth in a steady breeze, their buds ripening quickly in the sunshine. Two dusty gardeners inside the park were sweeping away lingering traces of winter. She watched through the wrought-iron railings as they cleared the path leading to the statue of Edwin Booth and was tempted to stay and root for the squirrels who were trailing the sandy debris, treasure hunting.
Instead, she ducked over to the Starbucks on 23rd.
Since their phone conversation, Isobel envisioned Lydia plastered against a wall, her auburn corkscrew pigtails quivering, her freckled face locked in a scream, as a herd of rhino roaches broke free from their box, hissing, clacking and scuttling their way toward her ankles and her ineluctable demise.
Lydia was going to need fortification. Isobel ordered a grande triple shot cappuccino.