By Joe Milazzo
Jaded Ibis Press
The Monks' apartment is a deceptive place. It has its observers—the building super, denim-ed and puffing sweet blue smoke with how this ain't so much of an exhibition, I'll tell ya, seen thicker jungles in my day; or the court-appointed attorney, the social investigator (a skinny knit of a necktie, a clipboard requiring a signature here and here beneath bony nostrils flaring authoritative abashment); that Neenah skipping a flashy tra-la-la through to fasten the latest scuttlebutt, you can't mean to tell me you haven't heard?, onto Nellie's window seat; the rare and unlicensed piano tuner, never the same but vaguely kin, nameless necks draped with felt and unerring fingers that would nevertheless rather be converting change than palpating the sharp ghosts trapped between lid and soundboard; musicians and would-be aesthetes, abstemious as well as all the in-between shades of lit, droopy-eyed and fall-out ashy, couriering wobbly cartons of corned beef and egg salad sandwiches, or half a meatball hero in warm-slick wax wrapping, dig the marinara, right? and Casper over there, unidentified male, no relation, check, employment status unknown, purpose of visit, social, and pinned underneath one of the few fully sleeved sax- or bone-toting arms (though one wonders, one truly wonders) a composition book bound with charcoal-gray cloth tape for once actually belongs; but most of all the man from the record company, as Nellie, moments after returning from the Clark residence to find the day's envelopes roughly gutted (Monk's thumb is a pretty crusty blade) and strewn, conjures him, the man from the record company with a ring made from the first silver dollar he ever earned, silver to match the sterling of his thick, swept-back hair, hair almost too thick, almost a medical condition, and with sand dribbling yellow and black, taking turns just like that, black on yellow, sand falling in dry drops from his fists onto her 63rd Street threshold. In the Monks' apartment, these observers can only enter so far and thus they enter each other, queued up in the sameness of their puzzlement. These observers, they each imagine space in the Monks' apartment where there is no room for space at all. Sifting with their gaze for some acclimation that will never pile up, one palm as a visor to shade the eyes not from brightness but from sheer precipitous amounts, rare guests most often discover in the Monks' apartment a fully assembled couple, either groomed for an outing or hands-in-lap, properly yet dissonantly happy-faced in the middle of a legendary mess. But, man and wife, their mouths, though pert at the corners, seem to act as clamps (no outright refusal, no, nothing to suggest non-compliance), but hard to budge, those two, just grinning away like they haven't care one in the world, and here I am feeling so dragged, man, I mean hung, and damn, Jack, I'm with you, they've got something... wild, green and purple, with a feathery crest or flowers half-a-story high, something tropical like that stashed back behind those straightened smiles. The Monks are most likely middle-aged but they move like more elderly men and women do, gradually, and not so much with caution perhaps but with deep and unkempt deliberation. And why not? (The question is one of several open-ended items. Mox nix, baby.) What looks at first to be an avenue of impromptu egress between boxes overflowing with nettling, scroll-like papers (an umber-y gray) and stacks of business cards ("E. W. Wainwright & Son, Undertakers, Inc. 162 W. 136th St."; "Quentin R. Hand, Ph.Ch. Hand's Ethical Pharmacy, 202 W. 135th St."; "George G. Huggins, Detective, Hotel Grampion, 182 St. Nicholas Ave.") and announcements bruised by odd postmarks and sleeveless, scuffed 10-inchers with bad hangnail around their spindle holes is really a mantle unsuspended, a nook exposed, an alcove pulled inside-out. Or a packed portmanteau only waiting to be snapped shut. World's Fair gewgaws, (e.g., a green plastic Empire State Building), half-finished whittlings (tiny masks? monkey-paws?), a shoebox full of broken wishbones and slips of paper marked with decimal places and superscripts and strokes and lines, brick-colored railroad spikes flaking off deterioration, a tortoiseshell comb, a dented soup tureen, matchbooks wide and toothless, matchboxes whose rattle is no secret, easily-palmed enamel slabs of premium cigarette lighters, royal and scarlet ribbons stiffly flagging buttons from which the particulars of victory have long since faded, a musty olive military jacket made either of flannel or wool and sporting over the breast a badge where red embroidery circles a target square on a brown bison (head not bent in grazing, its mane full but snarled in dullness), cutlery that is all warped tines and cursory gullets, blankets thin as paper gowns, a navy blue duffle coat (ecru hooks and eyes), button-up sweaters with mothy rents in their backs layered one atop the other in an accidental coat of many colors, emery boards that appear to have been smeared with some mixture of milk chocolate and chalk, a never-wilting gardenia woven out of some stiffly textureless cloth that might as well be plastic, safety pins, paperclips, pen nibs, pen caps and gummed labels, wadded or folded paper sacks from small (snugging a fifth) to medium (rolled close over multiple scoops of lemon drops) to large (once sprouting the grassy tops of leeks, dill, celery, beets, carrots), a pair of cleats hanging by their knotted laces from a lamp (one shoe butting the 60 watt bulb, the other scratching the heavy parchment and cord shade), a telephone on which the operator's rotation has been braked by a plug of some prior morning's olio, the green grid of a table-tennis net wrapped gown-loose around a pair of table-tennis paddles, a Sucrets tin full of keepsies—aggies, devil's eyes, opals, turtles and glimmers—bullet-bright and just as squeaky, a partially-used roll of surgical tape whose pile of adhesive edges now bears a corona of dust and vagrant hair, a styptic pencil and one cowhide strop (canvas its backing), a plunger whose loose lips have tied the tongue of its wah-wahs, baseball cards (no Giants, many dog-eared checklists), flattened cigarette cartons, sticks of spearmint chewing gum in a mason jar whose screw-cap is minus its brass center, a lowboy and a mismatched wingback chair of ambiguous upholstering, bureau facings whose dovetails poke like ribs from a starving child's bloat, a cake plate commemorating the coronation of Edward VIII, pop bottles still pierced with drinking straws whose cloudy insides are turning to plaque on the radiator, the trigger for seltzer that long ago effervesced away, a cribbage board which appears to have been to sea (its pegs are made from spurs of whalebone), a depleted can of linseed oil, a full bottle of castor oil, and a wrench black with soot or its own iron and as long as a 9 year-old boy's dream of a robot's arm, a wind-up toy car whose utterly missing key (bow-shaped) has taken the car's color down whatever highway it has taken to wherever, laminated (not take-away) deli menus, a mound of pen nibs discarded but into a precise array that resembles of a bed of nails (for june bugs, cockroaches), stray cushions for sofas no longer owned, a glazed stone piggy-bank, a schoolboy's watercolor set (the cakes of pigment beginning to split into pastel muds), current and not-so-current issues of The Crisis, an unbroken 4-month run of Our Sports Magazine, a stray number of Amazing Science-Fiction with what could be a lock's combination written in clotted ink on the cover (in the free space represented by a rocket's white-hot exhaust), a copy of Famous Hollywood Leading Ladies In Glamorous 3-D (the accompanying cardboard spectacles are near the window, and three-fourths of the red cellophane lens has been bleached to sallow transparency by the action of the sun), a "4-Color Special" Gene Autry comic book, How To Prospect For Uranium (number 279 in a series of 75 cent "How-To" books; the cover is well-creased, unlike the cover model's crisp white Marshal Dillon Resistol, and the following pages have had their dog-ear-ings uncrimped: 12, 38, 50, 52, 55, 113, and 141), a full-color and square-bound printing of Les Aventures de Tintin et Millon: L'Affaire Tournesol (the book's customs duty form is now being used as a bookmark), more modest cartoons clipped or torn from magazines and Sunday Features ("Gasoline Alley" and "Pogo" most often, no "Krazy Kat" at all) push-pinned to the backs of chairs, corks afloat on lost wine, round and flask canteens, an amoebic plastic ashtray full of piasters and tickeys and shillings, take-up spindles for Brownies and Eagle Eyes... everything has its own eccentric yet plotable coordinates. It is as if this one room were all the flat's rooms, and at every moment of their occupation by Nellie and her husband. Likewise, the activities, whether elapsed or with recurrence looming, for which the divisions of this jumble are clues—the visitor is too dazed but to surmise the solution until long after farewells—have themselves accumulated dearly rather than been vividly imprinted upon the constancy in which these two Negroes, married, head their household. (Most notes to this last effect have been stricken, conditions may or may not have worsened, or improved, and the agency's back-files, once consulted, prove to be of little to no assistance. That will be all for today; I will call again in 7 to 10 days. You have my card. Thank you.)
Monk can move through this riot of possessions and sundries and diversions effortlessly when he wants, his piano when played dancing on its three legs, the elephantine cortex in this exposed nerve center of inconspicuous dendrites, axons in need of some renovation, and ganglia of what has never been thrown away. (Nellie would almost rather the man from the record company bob and buoy in her doorway like a periscope, the way Neenah is accustomed to. Is it because there's something about him that unprepares her, frets her how-do-you-dos with reminiscences of Neenah's I'm-just-dying-tos? But Neenah is just right there, down the hall. In case you ever really feel like you miss all that. The man from the record company, his promptness is obedient if not especially cooperative. Indeed, it would be a betrayal of one's office to allow one's deportment to conform to one's opinions. His check becomes Monk's check by means of a square modest yet opaquely creamy and velvety to the touch. A proverbial engraved invitation. Perhaps it is the record company man's gloves and their buttons, but Nellie imagines the envelope she receives, very thusly, would, if unsealed, reveal no trace of perforation around the check's edges. She imagines Monk's full name, typed, numerals told like a story, a memo. And the signature would loop and swerve with an impeccability nearly feminine. And maybe Nellie is correct. Or perhaps she would be better served by a supposition to the effect that said signature would be worse than an ℞.) Nellie has long preferred to be much less intuitive in her travels. She does not want to acclimate herself to too many of these details. She does not know why they could not make do with a spinet. Actually, she does know why Monk cannot, but she knows that, with cooperation and acknowledgement that there will never be another you, Nellie, just you, she could. Each day Nellie shovels a path—sometimes with her foot, less often with a use-shorn broom—across the slatted floor to the piano and retrieves a stack of dirty glasses, plates and saucers heaped with almost argent scraps: Monk snacks all day on the foil-canopied cold dishes she keeps in the icebox for him. And Nellie, in her bearing through this morning, has the time and so dwells on her industriousness.
The day they moved in, and maybe after all it was the last day when Nellie could grant that these four walls were theirs, his and hers, the standing reminders of just how privacy can vanish, as if it suddenly held one in contempt, not that any member of the tall quartet had said mum to her. The day they two of them moved in, Monk was rolling up his sleeves as he walked to the center of the browned-out (bad fuses), biggest and soon-to-be-rechristened front room. Monk spread his feet wide there, on either side of a podium only he could pound, and hauled the words up from some part of himself where (as Nellie pondered the stance and speech that evening, too tired to put on sheets but thankful for the slick cool spread of the bare mattress) they, the words, had been entrenched for a long, long while.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
In Nellie's ears, these assertions of her husband's did not echo and twang the way words in a completely bare room usually might. With just a hint of cacophony. No. These words reverberated instead with assent: to a blankness that had its own color, to a mix of exterior light and interior gloom, to what little dirt the bogey-man had left behind when he beat it, double-time, out of these rooms, and once and for all, to a lived-in- (if not lived-up-to-) ness, to a cash deposit, to a secondary term of the lease, to a draftiness, to a height in the plastered-over beams of the ceiling, to a daisy-scented feeling of independence in his taking over a domain that wasn't upstairs from his mother, wasn't perched and watchful over his mother's ailing protectiveness. Nellie remembers that the words did not have to help Monk up the stairs and down the hall, nor vice versa for that matter. Monk was in what would be their living room, his arms slightly extended from his sides, a blue bandana loafing out of his back pocket. Monk did not have to be found. Monk was there. Which was, suddenly, here. And even though her knees smarted and her nose was stuffed with disinfectant suds, Nellie was ready to reside with Monk, this man, her man, looking at not his past, not even his future, just up and around at a monotony from whose dimensions he had always previously been ostracized, and she was ready to reside with him in a capacity to which she had made vows months before but until this day when her busy, busy hands would be stamped by newsprint and at least one dish would break, but until now, this
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
moment, she had felt unable to fulfill. So this is what he'd held his blooming back for. Nellie realized then how ready she'd been to stop living on the dime of Monk's hesitating. And, now that he had found some first means of fishing it out, he'd finally slipped it into the meter, cranked the dial, and walked the walk of those who walk on.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
So the exasperated wonderment Nellie lays on as to where all this heaping has come from can't help but be disingenuous. And Nellie knows this, and she inherits it every day that she makes her way through the hoards, dawn after dawn. Hard to imagine now that she has not once been disappointed by having to instruct herself that neither Monk's sprees nor his generosities could have deposited all this property in her house. And if they had, they'd be explanations all out of character. Cantankerous, and how. They just are. They've never even once been introduced, not by Nellie, not to Nellie. Could you picture Monk a landlord? A Potiphar?
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
That first day they were the Monks, the radio voice of Walter Winchell broadcasting from Rio de Janeiro and right into their neighbors' dinnertime lives could be heard at any portal left thrown open. The landlady who had, in their case and why Nellie could not figure, waived her request for references without any piss or vinegar ticked off one last reminding time her list of conducts and classes of visitors not countenanced. So helpful, yes. If Nellie had known then what she knows now, well, Nellie can almost see the woman's heart bleeding right through the faded lilac of her matronly blouse. Monk was skillfully (Nellie guessed) keeping himself kitchen counters and cupboards away from this very important enumeration. At most, he would occasionally punctuate the landlady's points with grunts of indeterminate import.
— And absolutely no callers, not even family members, after 9 PM. This is a decent house
— for decent people.
What was Monk emphasizing? Other times it was the funniest detail... that a former tenant had ended up at Bellevue, or mention of a trusty but bricks-shy handyman. Meanwhile, as she shared each of her items, the landlady would take her right thumb and press hard on a finger of her left hand, as if she wanted to touch the back of her wrist with her thick and moony nails. The landlady did not add up or sum her provisions; perhaps it was an oversight. But Nellie counted at least four multiple fractures on her own. Later, installed but effect-less, Nellie chased the odor of new paint (come to think of it, it smelled a bit like cider turned too hard; it could have been turpentine) from bedroom to bathroom closet to hallway while Monk, having opened his mouth, whittled away street minutes by umpiring a stickball game.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
The pang of it: sometimes it was so painful to Nellie to admit that, well, this is how what it had been now is. You had to know those closest to yourself not all to yourself, but through other people, people whose names you might not even ever learn, people whose faces didn't change a thing, people who might not even reach the everlasting afterwards of a story that, in the proper company, or on a night when you were especially blue, gets plainly told, without retelling putting the cherry on top. Distance is a spoiled child, a thorough brat, or the more you indulge it, the more you are distance's plaything. The emotional vertigo of watching Monk conduct, it exerts such a pull it makes Nellie want to cling to whatever placidity she can unearth. Nellie grips the ledge of the piano, but only for a second. Then she slips her hand toward Monk's last glass. It is swimming inside with a shallow pool of melted ice cubes and a caramel tincture of Coca-Cola (or borrowed sips of scotch). Nellie's hand slows, then stops. She drums her fingers against the clear fluting, rat, tat, taps. How long would it take for the rest of this drink, this Monk extract, to evaporate? A day? Two? A week? If she were to leave the glass here, midway between the window and the front door, would the objects ranging so slovenly around it lap up the vapor like leopards and okapi and toucans bending in wary truce to a watering hole? Or would this remaining water breathe the room in? Nellie, upended and her head as egg-ish as the back of a spoon, stares back at herself through the other side of the drinking glass' fancy chamfers. The piano's finish is already a lost cause, afflicted as it is with this lackadaisical vitiligo (not to mention there are those itches you just never have any business scratching), but Nellie extracts a couple of clean sheets of score paper from the piano bench (she also finds the core of an apple there, which she drops into her pocket, the gestural equivalent of not stooping to make a comment) and, quartering the pages, places the makeshift trivet underneath the slow consumption of the glass. Lest it sweat anymore. Heaven forbid.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
Nellie, returning to the living room from her sewing bag, drops a tailor's ruler into Monk's glass, but the water line bumps upwards. The measurements won't be accurate unless she compensates for this little surge. Nellie picks the ruler out of the glass. Once it is firmly in hand again, she shakes the excess liquid from its wetted inches as if it were a thermometer she were about to insert. And then again, sometimes that same "you watching you watch yourself watch Monk", it was a joy. Not a pure joy. And nothing impure about it. That stickball game was one of those elevated occasions. Nellie remembers she and Monk were fanning themselves with church bulletins (discovered in the pocket of a jacket left far back in the main closet), strolling their new square footage and, though they said nothing of it to each other, concluding that maybe the common passages from flat to flat should not be as quiet as a walk in the park. Monk's stomach growled, Nellie went searching for frankfurters with onions, sweet relish and mustard, and when she returned, Monk was surrounded. Or he had surrounded himself. Boys, boys, boys. Monk made the change in his baggy pockets ring like a hundred different tiny music-box chimes, or a fairy harp. He helped the team captains split the kids' two-handed popsicles
— Save the sticks. You plant it. We'll see. Popsicle tree on this corner.
waiting as they were until the rented Bekins men came. (Neither Monk nor Nellie knew anyone who was both reliable and owned a truck. So they paid for professionals with ticking from the mattress Monk's mother had slept on since Monk's father had passed away, and with dregs from her deepest tin of oolong, a beverage that Monk had otherwise forsworn.) That first day nothing could have interfered with her husband's standing at the hearth-less heart of his new home and examining everything in its shape. And there was nothing there, at least nothing to which Monk would not care to sign his name. Whatever that could be. Had that been Monk?
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
The stickball game ended in a draw.
Still, many of the mornings that are as unsettling and shivery as this one, Nellie is compelled to pose to herself: what has happened to obscure what it is she read in that agreement binding "here" to here? What, at all, has gone on in these rooms? Period? Nellie did not give birth on that bed that was so cool that first night, and which she and Monk had carried, slat by slat and each handling one end of the headboard, up five flights of stairs as darkness was creeping down while the movers tended to the one of their number who had gashed his hand while pulling down too hard on the truck's loading door. Monk did not make an anniversary of their arrival. (Anyway, Nellie came a day before, with rags and a pail.) Nellie can recall incidents of kissing Monk. She can still, as if tracing a dance step, make the motions, putting her hand on Monk's cheek and partly cupping her sweetheart's peach-fuzzed chin to swivel his head and sneak one in on him there under the scarecrow-like, far goal of that basketball court where he lumbered with such unwarranted confidence, oh so fancified in himself, all those long summers long gone. But Nellie cannot fit a kiss any more piercing than a no-spittle peck (preceded by an
— Awww, Nellie...
) into this house. An impossible absence, and, even to her way of thinking, there's something tellingly imperfect about Nellie's conviction. But they had been perhaps that accustomed to one another well before settling in. It's not the end-all, be-all of passion. Not the dream of a million dreams. It wasn't that you and I locked touching away and forgot the combination. But home does mean having too much to attend to. That's a fact. You and me, settled-in, you in me and me in you. The towels are changed out every week, regular, and the bills get paid. Another fall... another spring... another song for a singer—not me, no singer I—to sing. Now, now, now. Yet just as certainly Nellie has never bussed Monk under any un-fragrant sprig of indoor mistletoe slowly starving on a false branch of tinseled wire.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
What about embraces? Nellie presses her hand to her head, like placing a poultice to draw the poison of some memory to the surface. Monk stood where he had rolled down his sleeves and, grabbing Nellie's hand, he held it up to his forehead. Despite the heat, Monk's brow was dry, so dry it could almost not be described as smooth.
— OK. ALL RIGHT. YEAH.
And then Monk proposed her own state of mind to her.
— Nellie. You prepared?
Another dawn displaces Nellie's sentiments for the next. Lately, they've been interchangeable anyway. She stands beside the piano, in the little roominess of its bend. She keeps her hip to herself. She imagines she is choking, drowning as Monk's glass can't stop itself from overflowing. Her hand is suddenly at her side, fussing at an apron's slip. She takes her tray and steps away from the rim. Laden with what belongs to the kitchen, the muscles stand up in brown bands from Nellie's slender forearms. A bundle of points and planes—elbows, hips, a severe jaw, plates, pallid cylinders, deflated napkins—each an edge of her touch, Nellie avoids the precariousness of her husband's collections. Nellie's precise relationship to this treacherous junk, yes, treacherous, refuses to be specified. In fact, her ownership she has never sought to confirm or deny. Never, no, not once has she given into that temptation. And Monk knows it, too. Nevertheless, advantage, much like time—it is nearing 8 AM, and she is expected by 9:30—is something Nellie just does not have much of today of all days. At the deep sink she prods the slimy rubber plug into place with a used butter knife. So that she can soak for half an hour, at least. Or so. The hot water groaning with a copper ring in the pipes, Nellie exhales to her popping knees and ducks to the cupboards that make her purdah. Nellie thinks even as she does—"purdah" and "treacherous junk" she blames on early morning, pre-sweet-roll and -Yuban grouchiness. How can you be so broke when you have so much? Well, mister, who was it brought home all that stuff that nobody, but nobody else, would ever want to buy, or keep? Isn't it a good thing her husband cannot see her flatten her mouth and wag her head, pins and all, at the stubbornness of prepared Spanish green olives (packed in brine) upended in a halved carton of salt, only to smile at the rocky marshmallows that, inadvertently spied, are her only reminder now of the warm cocoa she used to fix? And isn't it—Nellie, hup to, now—isn't it right about now?
Nellie rises from the cupboards her pantry has somehow annexed with the cares of three—no, two and one-half—households on her back. She thumps the HOT and COLD handles with the open depression of her palm. Otherwise, the leak from the kitchen faucet becomes a consistent if skinny stream. Nellie nudges the swinging door leading back into the main room, as always, with her back to Monk's piles, mountains of Monk, using the gum sole of her white nubucks. She moves then to the one window in the living room.
Living room. If she had a pair of slippers, Nellie would keep them right here where the sun penetrates all the way through to the floor. Her window looks out over this division of this city. The only crowding in the neighborhood are the vacancies that have ensued from abandonment. Over the years, Nellie has decided that they won't necessarily be filled. Anyway, its an argument from which she has been far removed; however heated it becomes, it remains to her a murmur, a thudding, like blood being pushed on and on in the suites that are priced at a reasonable rate on the other side of her separation.
Nellie rises and weaves her way towards the piano again. She takes Monk's highball understudy and returns to the embrasure. She clasps the glass tight in both hands, fingers not laced but fingertips touching, pressing against the slight ripples in sight with all the meat left hanging on her hands. And, rotating and tilting very gingerly, Nellie proceeds to toy with the sunspots that, though a bit puny, brighten the fat lip and won't sink to the bottom of what Monk didn't finish. Maybe if she applies this much force, this much warmth, Nellie can accelerate the ebbing of this tide of undesired refreshment. Maybe. And then she can ready the vessel for its next big emptying. Nellie thinks to herself that she should be surrounding a jar, its hard clarities, its silent but insatiable shout of
— Oh, oh. Ohhhh
as wide and lightly traveling as a streak of high cloud you can't see from here. A cloud like a harmonica. A train whistle like a Jiminy Cricket, affably admonishing. But Nellie's heard it all before. A song isn't any wish; it's just an excuse for one more song.
Nellie pulls her feet up underneath her. Before she was hunched; now she is kneeling in her seat. Nellie glances outside. The autumn is very upwardly mobile. A sweep of leaf-littered air animates the bleakness, the garbage leaps or rolls into packs, heeding some master's whistling command. Nellie takes it all in, leaving silence. The staleness in her throat does not have to rise, but it feels as though it does, like an aborted belch. Nellie imagines she can see the consequences with which that sweep of autumn air bustles and bristles, but she cannot feel them here, where the streaks and specks are, where pursued lips part in a puff of knocked-off irritability, watching this backwards Nellie spilling snapped seams and nothing so much as a tuft of fuzz or gray, this near-Ellen circling her going with a poor old pocket turned out, it’s just another Nellie slightly wadded up and wiping down the steam that has turned to glass.