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Beautiful Morning

by Lee Kvern

Atticus’ future girl was the one in the white sailor hat, the tight, dark clothing, melancholy look about her tenuous jaw, the fragile pink around her eyes, darkened green irises the color of the Hudson River that he found so captivating, could be found daily on the flat, wide rocks just beyond the Jewish newspaper seller; Atticus’ summer morning swims. But here, this third Sunday in May, was Atticus’ future girl, a quiet intense black swirl across the teeming room of the defunct, grounded ferry on Newton Creek. The makeshift bar of the ferry was covered in heavy frayed rotting rope gathered the past week from boat salvage yards, empty gasoline cans strewn about the closed-in space, the water-wracked ATM machine, discarded Bic lighters by the dozens collected from Jones/Brighton/Long Beach, from Coney Island. The rows of benches were outfitted with orange flotation devices, the yeasty waft in the stale air from the past festering carpets, thanks be only for the giddy coat of whitewash administered by Atticus and his art groupies hours prior, the oil paint still tacky on the ferry walls. On deck at midnight, a women’s boxing match would take place: satin shorts, black-laced boots, red leather gloves, no sucker punches, K.T.F.O. (knocked the fuck out), semi-professionals only. She, like the rest of his followers, made it out to the derelict ferry turned performance art turned party boat; the third annual Nautical Waste Atticus staged with fellow artists, urban outlaws, and/or any other stray act-full New Yorkers interested in art, or simply the spirit of drunken, mutinous sailors. The sailor girl fit neatly, categorically into both art and mutinous, a scrimshaw artist of some small note he would find out later, her skilled lewd, erotica scenes of couples engaged in, with, joined to one another etched arousingly, mostly on old piano keys, (mammoth tusks and walrus ivory hard to come by these days, endangered like scrimshaw itself) like her also, Atticus suspected. The lovely blue veins that pulsed beneath her brown skin, wound along her delicate wrists, the sheer hollow of her temples, the small glass of uncut vodka she held in her precise hands. Atticus’s eyes laid exactly on her, her eyes cast on the merman propped up in the corner next to the giant penis constructed from the million plastic bags, sea-sanitized condoms washed ashore, tied and stuffed, swollen beyond recognition spray painted blue to match the black merman. His girl as mesmerized as Atticus by the live merman’s African-American body embodied from the waist down in fish-tailed bubble wrap, a skiff of fluorescent blue riffing off the surface of his skin as if newly enlightened, fairy dust of some kind, fairly glistening off his defined pectorals, over the silver-pierced nipples, across his muscle-cut abdomen. Atticus watched his girl maneuver through the swim of young/old men and women: mostly single, creative solitary souls – their world of constant dread. Though few were married, still filled with hope, working multiple jobs, this city so expensive they could hardly find a place to lay their own hard-treading artistic heads down, let alone hope for children and a reasonable life beyond. So many had left. So many had given up, in, over. Others filled with the street, illicit substances, homeless, hopeless, the mottled mix of dancers/writers/poets/performance artists packed in the room like discounted fish in a metal can. The blue-black of his girl’s short cropped hair shimmered beneath the pot lights as if freshly created, matching the otherworldly hue of the merman’s skin, a glistening blue – the both of them meticulous performances on their own, some glorious nautical specimens Atticus fished out of the tidal depths of the lower Hudson. Future girl: Long before she knew him, she knew him, his public him. His loves: giant squid, his metal cat series that he rarely, occasionally sold, his beloved mother, her generous trust fund, his Sell Hell mosaic constructed secretly, publicly beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, his home built fiberglass and wood submarine that he launched in the Hudson in honor of the Revolutionary War that earned him two Coast Guard citations and the front page of the New York Times. (No real terrorist threat, the Times reported, just marine mischief.) His urban outlawness that propelled him to seek the forgotten parts of the city, the vacant space where water met land, or in the middle of waters, those rarified places not yet claimed by land developers; his obsession with the lower Hudson, perhaps its free connection to the open sea, or the marrying of foreign waters. She didn’t know which or why. The beard he longed for but couldn’t grow, the nautical braided hair, the graffito wire fish he constructed, embedded into the rusty hulls of deserted vessels around the harbors. His flat work pinned, stapled, taped to billboards, fence posts, construction sites: giant mono-toned etchings of squids, pen and ink drawings of strangely joined marine creatures, sharp finned, sparking red lightning out of their tails, mouths open, laughing, eyes shut. His moniker, the two-starred flag, Liberty or Death, that he spray painted on walls throughout the Meatpacking District, his art not for sale, never for ownership – only, always for public consumption. The steel-sculpted spike-backed cats welded (with permission by the liberal parish priest who also ran a program for the homeless) on the stone steps of the rear entrance of Our Lady of Guadalupe on West 14th where Atticus was living temporarily in the lower bowels: a windowless, one-roomed spacious bunker. She knew the litany/legend of his body art, the skipping tattoos, so naughty and scrimshaw-like, elaborate drawings on a minuet scale displayed across the cagey surface of his salted skin, first in Pali’s mind as she watched him across the crowded room behind the makeshift bar. Then later with her soft mouth and renewed hands, every lucent pore of her Spanish body finding them, discovering him bit by bit like bits of startling treasure washed up on shore or tiny illuminated glints half buried in the sand, beneath his clothes. The double-ended eel snaking the electric line of wiry brown hair down his lower belly, the curled, almost hidden birds, fish, flowers, colored songs rippling beneath the muscle of his shoulder blades, his chest, all of it, him registering beyond the rigid moral constructs of land, life, her mother. In Atticus, a sense of danger and possibility. How could she not? Seventeen years junior to his forty, an only child to her strict Catholic mother, deadbeat father (oh father where art thou?). Only hers to decide. She crossed the room to claim him. “Pali Caliente,” she said extending her small hand directly into his. The day she moves into his life, Atticus fleshes out a corner for her in the roomy church bunker, a rickety kitchen table he found on Washington St. that he reinforced with metal brackets beneath each wobbly leg. “For you,” he showed Pali, “and us.” Unpacking a bag of still-hot cinnamon buns from the Portuguese bakery two doors down, thanks to monthly stipends from his lovely mother in Upper Manhattan. From behind his back he produces two peeled mangoes on pointed sticks from the Jamaican street vendor above like a bouquet of flowers, deep yellow, the undertone of Pali’s golden skin in July, the faint blue/red of her perceptible veins that make him lie awake at night sometimes and ache, those haunting Hudson eyes. But the mango fruit in season, dripping oh-so-sweet sticky down their moving, searching mouths, so smooth sure faces while Atticus produces strong black Americanos on his Italian Krups each morning. Overhead the bright silver swinging light for their late morning brunches that sometimes bled into lunch, their leisurely dinners: life-taking, art-making, love-finding all found on a tenuous table in the basement of a Roman Catholic church. Pali’s slight shoulders hunched in the corner, her blackened clothing, her tools strict, disciplined like her mother but different, she imagines, hers chosen, created, not of the forced rote life that her mother followed blindly. Her honed knives, large-eyed needles, sharpened scribes that she stipples on the difficult surface of lost lives, ancient bones, found ivories. Tiny, intricate holes fortified with the soothing voices of her pale colored pigments filling in the prescribed spaces of human body upon body in the controlled, confined space of piano keys, the odd whalebone when available; her couples coupled, pleasure-seeking, the effervescent sensual music of them, her art, her vibrant Atticus blocking out the sound of her otherwise hissing sibilant life. “Come look,” she’d say and Atticus would lay down his black Sharpie, cross the wide room, his calloused hands needing the tight ball of her hunched shoulders. “Us,” she’d tell him. “Listen.” The soft hush of the forced air, the muted footfall of Sunday mass above; the blank look on Atticus’ face, nonetheless his wide chipped-toothed smile, his needy massage that distracts her brilliantly from her intense work. And Atticus a veritable feast, a never-die light, a seemingly giant squid himself, multi-armed with graffiti cans of spray paint, his tubes of bright acrylics, an art happening wherever he happened to be. His studio visitors: friends, followers, the liberal priest from above checking from time to time to make sure nothing ungodly was taking place below his feet, beneath his church. Pali sliding her piano keys beneath the soft cotton cloth she used to clean her tools. The odd time Atticus’ mother in full swing, full length fur/cashmere/chiffon coat, cherry lipped and smiling tightly at the mere acquaintances, the off-the-street bearded, pierced, shaved, mohawked, land-locked strangers that Atticus equips with plastic ice cream pails filled with shattered ceramics, broken tea cups and tiles, bits of sea glass. “Look, look what I found!” Atticus waving his finds in the air for Pali to see. Beer glass, found on-the-street glass, the accompanying buckets of Thinset mortar and metal trowels; him and his followers spread out across the city like seabirds, foraging the hidden places, the darkened bits of the city, the vacant spots in need of light. A spray/acrylic/mosaic minstrel, Atticus leads his followers up and down the streets of his great city, the world’s eye solely on his apple. “Want to come?” he asks Pali. Pali looks up, a conflicted longing in her Hudson eyes, she shakes her head; leans closer to the whalebone she’s inking, melancholy blue in the lightless room. “See you after?” he asks. She looks across the room, flashes her small ivory teeth at him. “Of course.” Summer days Pali works well into the night. The windowless room in the church basement discerning neither the light nor the dark, the muffled footsteps of the parish priest above her head, the whispery confessions she thinks she can hear, the classical: forgive me father I’ve sinned, or bless me father for I kicked me wife’s cat this morning, Irish Catholic that one. She doesn’t really know, mostly makes up the imagined dialogue in the stony silence, the inky smudge of quiet voices, distant music in her light-depraved brain; too long alone. It doesn’t matter now the hours bent over the hard wood surface, the pointed tools, porous ivory, her pulsating Atticus more and more absent. She wanders the dark room in her dark clothing, where is Atticus? Out with friends, followers, creating organized disorder on the streets of New York for the people of New York. She gets it; she really does, his public self, his private driven need to be unrestricted, freely available, publicly known, his enviable freedom that she sometimes envies. But she’s lonely tonight, tired, she wants him here, his lean lush body curled around hers on their stripped futon on the cement floor, the tender of his skin, the song of his tattoos, not the relentless murmur in her head that she can’t drown out. She goes down the quiet hall to the bathroom, fishes through the medicine cabinet, finds the muscle relaxants Atticus had when he threw his back out trying to haul a large metal grate out of the Hudson, perfect for the temporary bar installation he was planning for Plum Island: the reconstructed shanty town turned street chic, concrete building to be freshly graffiti-ed, salvaged sea bottles to be washed and cleaned, filled with booze, 5-cent crabs steamed, served at midnight, all compliments of his mother’s trust fund, if only she knew. Atticus’ goal: make it until morning, then pass out in the sea air, nothing better. He’d dragged the heavy, river-rusted grate along the banks of the estuary, then back along West St. until finally he sat down on the curb, heavy breathing, clutching his lower back, he abandoned it out of sheer exhaustion. Like her perhaps, her exhaustion, his abandonment? She opens the childproof prescription bottle with both hands, such force the small bottle slips out of her hands, the tiny blue pills dispersing on the concrete floor. She bends down, pops two in her mouth, doesn’t bother to gather the rest, she’ll find them later. She downs the pills with a shot of uncut vodka, then pours herself another shot, nothing serious, no intent. Settles on their futon for a long Atticus-less night. So maybe she goes looking for him the places she knows, the places they go together: Flatiron, West Village, not necessarily NoHo or Greenwich but along 11th Ave behind the closed newspaper stand, the stand of flat rocks overlooking the Hudson. The moon high, full bright, the New York air hot, humid still. She feels so good, a flotation device, more buoyant than she has her entire life. The pills yes, the vodka shots, the saline thick in the moist air like Atticus’s skin when he comes home after his early morning swims. She thinks of Atticus’s wiry body moving through the green morning water. “Beautiful morning?” The Jewish newspaper seller apparently asks Atticus after his morning swims. No doubt her Atticus nodding vigorously, standing on the wide rocks, rivulets of Hudson streaming off his colored fish, his flowers, his roaring birds, his stripped down body. “Beautiful morning,” Atticus bellowed when he came home, a paper bag in hand. Her blue-black hair a tumble, she rising, yawning from the futon, the yellow sun through the opened door. “What did you bring?” The broad grin across his beardless face, forty years old, no handles on his waist you could call love, nothing to hang on to but she does anyway. So strong his strokes, so certain his swimmers touch, their simple exchange. After: Ukrainian poppy bread or jam kolaches or sugar dusted Polish chruscik, Italixan panettone – their world of constant bread. She pulls her knees up on the flat, warm rocks, squints out over the quiet water. She wants to feel him now, feel his electric eel body coupled, conjoined with hers. She doesn’t want his public commodity anymore. She wants him. She takes her Blancpain watch (Moon series), such an extravagant gift from Atticus’ mother (seriously an apartment would make more sense but Atticus refuses anything beyond his mother’s monthly stipends on which he funds his installations and subsists in the cement bunker of an 18th century church). This watch, this gift a sure sign that Pali might well be the one able to withstand both eccentric mother and give-me-liberty-or-find-me-death son. Pali strips her layers of tight black clothing off down to her lemon-colored bra and cotton boy briefs, folds them neatly into a pile on the flat rock, lays the Blancpain watch on top; a small dip to cool her ravenous skin, the compelling moon glinting off the surface of the deep green Hudson. First light, his followers dispersed back to home, alleyways, park benches, river shores, Atticus alone descends the stone stairs into the cement bowels of the church. Catches the flesh of his right ankle on the spiked cat in the murky light. Reaches down, wipes the blood away but it keeps coming, deeper than he thought, so that he must pause, the stinging pain reverberating up his calf. He sits on the bottom step in the uncertain dawn, removes his sock and ties it around the gash, applies sufficient pressure until his blood coagulates, thickens and the throbbing pulse lessens. He pushes the heavy wood door open, waits for his eyes to adjust to the black, limps quietly down the hall, and opens the door to their stone bunker. “Beautiful morning,” he bellows. No answer. He squints into the room: the sun revealing his marine mono-prints taped on the walls. Pali’s reinforced wood table in the corner, the silver swinging lamp she’s left on for him. He glances at their bed for his Pali Caliente unclothed, the smooth brown Spanish skin, her beautiful slight body sprawled naked across the length of their bare futon. She’s not there. He walks over, grimacing at the immediate memory of his ankle, the deep flesh wound (he might require stitches), peers closely at the assembly line of piano keys, her latest scrimshaw project, a series of swimming fish, roaring birds, human figures rolling, conjoined, intertwined both above and seemingly below the porous surface of the ivory as if three dimensional, Pali’s sleight of hand he thinks, or is it the watery pale of her colored inks? It lulls him suddenly, sharply into the idea of ownership. He doesn’t mind so much. He runs his fingers across the keys, imagines he hears the faint, distant music. Us, he thinks. He goes down the dark hall, knocks tentatively on the bathroom door. No answer there either. Restless perhaps, too long at work, Pali gone to the Cuban market on 8th for guava rolls, her favorite. Not unusual. He goes into the bathroom, slaps cold water on his tired, otherwise slaphappy face, only the medicine cabinet, the empty bottle of muscle relaxants cause him to swallow the first gallows of his future sorrow. She doesn’t mean it, never would, but it happens anyway. The circulation in her arms going first in the undertow, the wild Hudson so certain, so physical, so powerful, such risk she couldn’t have guessed, the merciless cold surprises her. Then her legs won’t move, she can’t lift her head, can no longer see the moon’s extraordinary light skipping across the surface, instead her body dipping, slipping down. The still-dancing light above her head now, the tidal waters holding her, a weird buoyancy just below the surface, unrelenting but kindly almost as if she could reach up and wave, feel the New York air warm and generous on her porous skin. Strangely she can’t or doesn’t want to. It doesn’t really matter. Listening to the nothing she hears under the water, the paradoxical calm once her thrashing subsides. Certainly not what she expected, so deceptively strong, so sure in its grip, its touch, her apparent lack of stroke. Mere feet below the surface of the lower Hudson, the necessary circuit in her body running from groin to heart, then her organs one-by-one, bit by bit, the cold telling her heart to stop, beat, love. There is nothing she can do. As surely as if he’d found the pile of neatly folded black clothing, Pali’s Blancpain watch laid out on the flat rocks, which he didn’t, (instead a blue bin diver from East Village lucked out). Nonetheless Atticus knows. He takes his threadbare white tee off, lays his Armani flip-flops aside that he found on Bank Street the previous week, mere days before the series of lightless days/nights in the church basement, a subterranean vault, the liberal priest, his beloved mother, his followers checking an hourly basis until finally he triple-bolted the door from the inside and refused to respond. Of the unbearable waiting no sleep no Pali no relief. He unbuttons his ripped jeans, no boxers beneath, only the double-ended eel of his silent tattoo snaking down his flat belly to his pubis to the mortal coil of his penis. A strong swimmer, familiar with the heavy undertow of the Hudson, where to swim, where not to, he wades in – the spiky sting of salt on his ankle. He forgot his watch; not waterproof, no gratuitous gift from his mother, his watch purchased cheap from a Lebanonese street vendor, Obama’s optimistic face, the screaming red, white and blue of America flagging the background, two hands circling as if waving. He wades out of the estuary, lays the novelty watch on his faded white tee. The evening sun glinting off the river’s surface, eager for his naked body, eager for his desperate pumping blood, the complicated neurons of his bright mind, the bright, mistaken day; he knows where she is. He dives down, reaches under for as long as he can, his lungs screaming beneath the Hudson as he slips through the dark green water, the searing pain a temporary balm on his permeable skin, then he surfaces. Choking, sobbing, saline flooding his mouth, his eyes, he splutters, gasps, not trying for breath but the opposite. His hands circling, survival instinct, the buoyant water, not the pitch black, the sink, the fall, the drop, the permanent descent below the dazzling surface, the K.T.F.O. he wants so badly; coupled with his Pali in the sea of mud, the subterranean basement of a living river. Instead the steady maniac autonomy of his forty years, his wiry arms, his wary body, muscular legs matching his front crawl. Beneath the colored fish, the flowers, the scrimshaw-like birds on his chest the bastard beat beat beat of his heart that won’t stop, the involuntary in/out/in/out of his breath that he can’t control – harder than he thought, not what he expected, not the nothingness he intended. So strong his strokes, so certain his intent, this seemingly simple exchange, above/below the permeable surface of the Hudson. Further than he’s been in the channel, tidal waves slapping up against his face, he pauses, grief’s roar in his ears, his frantic breath, he can’t make out her music, nor can he seem to make it up. The throbbing in his head, his chest, his hidden places, his darkened bits, his vacant spot in need of light, he treads water, watches the sun wane, lose its fullness, the warmth leaching as it drops on the Hudson horizon. The black settles around him in the channel. Still he swims, if he can make it through the night – then his fierce, beautiful mourning. In the lemon light of dawn, the Jewish newspaper seller rolls back the metal gates, stacks the weekend-thick New York Times, displays the daily papers, rearranges the glossy magazines, spots the pile of clothing on the flat rocks. Shielding his eyes from the brightness, he walks over, gathers the clothing, straps the Obama watch on his left wrist, for later, for safekeeping, squints out over the green Hudson for the swimmer, no doubt the wiry man he sees each morning.