The woman sits high up an elm tree in Prospect Park. Her suit is wool, with subtle vertical white stripes running through the dark jacket and pants. A material too warm even for September, and now it’s eighty-five degrees in the shade.
The suit is so big, she swims in it.
Her black hair stands up in clumps as if someone sawed it off with a steak knife. Her eyes are green but dark beneath the shadows. Her pale face burns red where the sun breaks through the canopy.
Thirty feet above the ground she sits with her back straight, swinging her legs like two logs strapped to her knees. She examines the park with clinical interest, slowly scanning the faces, ignoring most who stare back. Like the rotating beams of a lighthouse, her eyes continue on, searching, pausing only when she finds what she’s looking for.
A few yards away, near the statue of Washington Irving, she spots a dark-skinned man, mid-twenties, with curly black hair to his shoulders. He is tall and lean, his lips full both top and bottom, hs brown eyes searching his surroundings.
The man eases himself onto a bench like he is settling into a hot tub. His faded red t-shirt sticks tight to his arms, chest, and waist, while a snug pair of jean shorts rides up over his knees.
He looks around and carefully withdraws a mirror from his pocket, concealing the lens with his hands as if it contains a secret message. The mirror is rectangular, the size of a pack of cigarettes. He holds it at different angles above his head, mumbling to himself while he looks for something in the glass. And as he stares at himself, the woman in the tree stares at him. She takes notes with a black fountain pen and a blue and white journal until the man stands, tugs at his shorts, and walks away as if in a dream.
No one sees the woman in the tree arrive, and no one catches her departure. Most don’t care if they do or don’t, but a few try. A graduate student has begun skipping classes to watch the woman in the tree, and a custodian, during his smoke breaks, comes to the park to engage the woman in conversation. But the woman in the tree does not speak.
On the second day the graduate student drags over a policeman to coax the woman down. But there is no law, says the officer, against sitting in a tree. So the custodian and student continue to watch, and this is what they see:
All day the woman sits in the tree, never leaving for food or a bathroom break. No matter what she sees, no matter what she hears, her face remains the same—flat but expectant, as if she is waiting for her emotions to arrive with the afternoon breeze.
There’s a crack in the shell, but the custodian hasn’t seen it because of his work. Only the graduate student, staring up at the tree from across the path, has noticed the change that occurs close to noon each day.
With the sun high in the sky, the woman’s dark eyes narrow and glisten, and after a few minutes she begins to cry without making a sound. Many people pass by, but only the graduate student recognizes the subtle shift in her mood, the tears silently cutting a clean path through the filthy red. Sometimes the teardrops splash atop the shoulders or heads of pedestrians passing underneath, but they assume the drops come from the clouds. Or they do not think far enough to assume a thing.
On the third day the woman in the tree cries for more than an hour. When she finishes, she wipes her eyes with the back of her dirt-soaked hand. With one sharp, quick tug she rips her shirt sleeve from the shoulder, revealing a bare stick of an arm. She folds the torn sleeve neatly on the limb next to her.
Because the sudden action occurs during lunch, a few men and women hear the tearing and look up. They stare. They lower the sandwich or soda can from their lips. If there’s a person standing next to them, they reach out and poke them with their elbow or finger. And slowly the talking, the chatter softens to make room for the sound of the woman dismembering her clothes.
After the left jacket sleeve, she works on the right with clean, swift movements, quickly resetting herself with each try. She uses no tool, no knife or scissors. Only her long bony nails to pull apart the fraying cloth.
The collar separates without trouble and her jacket, now a vest, blows open with the wind. The people staring mistake the ashen skin underneath for a shirt.
Next she moves on to her pants, ripping the first leg at the knee. Then the second. Each new piece of fabric she calmly folds and places on the limb next to her.
People continue to watch. Before it was simply another Brooklyn anomaly. But now something has shifted. Somehow the woman has crossed a line.
From a distance the woman resembles a proper British child forced to wear some variation of a suit to satisfy the strict urgings of an uptight parent. No one is quite sure what to think as the woman shifts, hangs from her hands, and drops eight feet to the ground below.
With notebook in hand, her suit torn to shreds, the woman walks off, never to return.
For those who have watched, the woman’s presence and small shifts add up to an overall odd and incomprehensible narrative. But like most things in this city, she will be forgotten in less than a month, pushed out to make room for the next aberration.
The same day the woman in the tree disappears, a man stands in front of an apartment door three stories up and five blocks from the park. This man stands short and round, tan and bald. He’s fat in the face, his white tank-top and faded jean shorts painted on to his dumpy frame.
He stands so close to the door, the yellowed toenails poking out from her flip-flops scrape against the peeling black paint. When he raises his fist to knock, the curly dark hairs under his armpit uncoil from the swamp.
“I’m coming in there!” the man roars. “I have the right to call the police. I don’t have to do this!”
He lifts her fist to knock once more.
“It’s in the lease and you signed the lease!”
But instead of knocking again, he reaches for the keys with his left hand and tries the knob with his right. Finding the door unlocked, he calls out again and pulls the waistline of his shorts up over the stomach that rounds perfectly into his groin. After a deep breath and a quick look down the hall, the little man steps inside.
He misses the light switch with his first and second swipe, struggling to choose between finding the switch and pinching his nose. When it’s too much and he still hasn’t found the light, he retreats back to the hall, grabs a deep breath, holds it, and reenters the dark.
At the pulse of the vibrating phone in his pocket the man jumps again, mumbling something even he can’t understand while he shifts his hip to dislodge his Motorola.
“Yeah? No, nobody’s here. Because she won’t give it to me otherwise. I don’t know. Maybe she keeps a wad under her mattress, seems like the type. Look I want to get this over with. Yeah, okay. Yeah, okay!”
Turning back left, he finds the switch and flips it up. When the light blinks on, a scream rises up in the man’s throat, but he catches it as he stumbles back towards the doorway.
Hundreds of faces stare back at him. It’s the same face but slightly different each time. The face of the tenant: limp straight hair, green eyes, her expression blank and artificial. Like the face of a doll.
There are photos and sketches on giant poster boards, printer paper, and lined yellow paper covering the walls, floors, and furniture. And not only two-dimensional models. As the landlord inches his way through the avalanche, he brushes up against miniature, midsize, and life-size busts stacked on boxes or tables or piled haphazardly on the floor. These three-dimensional shapes come in clay, foam, plaster, marble, and papier-mache.
Wherever he turns he can’t take a step without brushing against some form of the woman’s likeness.
Shuffling forward, as if lifting his feet too high will cause some unknown catastrophe, the landlord turns right into the kitchen and sniffs the air while he flips on another light. The counters and floors are also covered with papers, posters of the woman staring out.
The landlord sniffs, and winces, and sniffs again. He reaches out slowly towards pages piled in the sink. With his thumb he flips the pile up to find more paper.
He crosses the small space between cabinets and sink, past the oven and refrigerator to the three-foot-tall metal trashcan against the far wall.
He looks down at the trash can, covers his mouth and nose with the top of his shirt and breaths deep.
“Uh, god,” he moans and presses the tips of his toes into the pedal at the base of the can. He jumps back, turns, and grabs the counter for support. With his fist he beats his pounding heart until the rhythm slows.
Approaching the canister, he peels his damp tank top away from his chest. Again he steps on the pedal, harder this time, and now he leans forward and stares down at the pile of muscle and blood and guts. He can make out the tiny wings of a bird, probably a pigeon. There is also some other creature, possibly a squirrel or a rat.
“Fuck,” he whispers. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck.”
He moves his foot, which drops the metal lid back where it was. Breathing fast between swallows, he backs out of the kitchen and stumbles across the room towards the windows, where he raises the blinds and recovers a bit in front of the rescuing light.
Through the window he spots a cheap green canvas camping chair on the fire escape.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” he mumbles, and lifts the window, leaning out and sucking in the late summer air. He looks around at the chair, at an empty coffee mug, and a book tented open, the name BALMER printed large on the spine.
He checks the drawers, and with a wince he lifts the mattress. Nothing, but under the bed’s wooden frame he spots something poking out.
Bending with his back, the landlord grabs the corner of a black and white notebook. He moves the first and notices more, at least a dozen under the bed.
After lifting one off the floor he opens to the first page and begins to read.
He keeps reading. The next page, and the next, and as he reads, his eyebrows lift and then come together, and come together, until his eyes are so nearly closed he can barely see the page.
His phone buzzes and again he jumps.
He lets it buzz three times until it stops, but whoever’s calling calls back.
“What!” he says, lifting the phone to his ear. “No. No. It’s fucking disgusting. We’re gonna have to get a whole team in here. I AM leaving. Just, I’ll be there in a minute.”
After reading another page, the landlord closes the journal, looks around, and stands for a moment thinking. Finally he gathers as many notebooks as he can from under the bed, forms a sack with his shirt, and scurries to the door with his precious load.
Three Months Earlier
Day 1,093 of 1,095 –
Della Reed hunched over her laptop, her boxers—Stephen’s boxers—stuck to her legs, the pads of her elbows leaving water marks on the desk. It was so hot already, the windows open on either side of her, the blinds pulled up enough for the soft Brooklyn breeze but not for the stinging sun. Her eyes flicked to the green canvas camping chair on the fire escape and then to the Nokia flip phone on the edge of her desk.
The same person, or people, had been calling for days, harassing, nagging, but she didn’t want them. She wanted Peggy. She bit the inside of her cheek, checked the phone, and let it clatter against the desktop.
Please call, Peggy. Please please please.
From a drawer on the left side she withdrew a strawberry Starburst. Peeled back the pink and placed it to the right with the others. Wincing at the anticipation of the artificial, god-awful flavor, she popped the gooey candy into her mouth and swallowed before the taste could take root.
“Two left,” she mumbled, chasing the residual sweetness with the last of her coffee. On the bottom of the drawer she carved a notch with her fingernail, one more slash to join the 1,092 others.
For ten minutes she tried to add to a document titled “One Goddamned Essay,” typing a few words, then erasing, never achieving more than five words in a row.
“It just won’t come,” she’d once told a man who’d called seeking donations for the Democratic National Committee. “I still write stories,” she said, “but they’re simple and dark, no happy endings. They’re not enough. I can’t do it anymore. And if I can’t do this—”
“Stories?” the cold-caller interrupted. “I’m talking about real life, Ms. Reed, and if we don’t do something, none of us will have any happy endings.”
Della held the phone away from her head, stared at it before bringing it back to her ear.
“How do you know my name,” she asked the caller. “My number is unlisted.”
The caller fumbled for an answer as Della pressed the little red button to end the call.
Now as she stared out from her desk, the shitty Nokia rang and rang just like it had been ringing for the past two days. Some persistent salesman or a wrong number who kept thinking she was right.
But when she looked at the number her eyes laughed out of their lids. She grabbed the phone and pressed the little green button.
“Hi Peggy!” She tried to dampen the high note of eagerness in her voice, and in the pause that followed she considered how she would begin. She’d love to hear about the garden, but she also wanted to ask about Peggy’s reaction to The Guns of August, which Della recommended the last time they talked. She thought of Peggy as her grandmother although she’d never met her and hadn’t talked to her more than a dozen times, not counting the email correspondence. Still, Peggy and her husband were the only relationships Della had willfully maintained over the past three years.
“It’s Tom, Delly,” came the phlegmy voice she couldn’t stand. “Peggy’s busy with the grandkids I’m afraid.”
Della swallowed the clot in her throat. Goddamn Tom. Pushy, indelicate, hard-edged Tom.
“Sorry to burst your bubble. How ya doin?”
“Fine,” Della told him. “I just, I thought you were someone else. That’s why I didn’t—”
“Those goddamn telemarketers bothering you again, Delly?”
“We told you to change your number, it helps throw ‘em off the scent, you know?”
“I’ll think about it. Will she have a few minutes?”
Della listened to Tom’s deep inhale. She pictured the man rubbing his face. “Like I said, Delly, she’s busy with the grandkids. You know—”
“Doesn’t she want to—"
“I’m not saying you’re bothering her,” Tom barked, the back pedal clear in his tone. “Did I say you were calling too much? Not at all not at all. Today the grandkids are in town and what with these conferences. It’s a busy time is all, and considering your situation, I just think it’s better if we call you, right? That make sense?”
“What’s my situation?”
Another inhale, another sigh on the other end. “Now listen. Peggy and I are trying to expand a little bit, what with the minor successes we’re starting to have.”
“Well yeah, yours, and we got other clients, other writers.”
“But they haven’t won you awards,” Della countered.
Tom Gunderson hardened his tone. “We made some critical changes to your story didn’t we, as usual? And for every children’s book that gets out, there . . . well there’s so much marketing, and meetings. You wouldn’t, I mean you wouldn’t believe the number of lunches and dinners.”
“I could write new stories, send them to different people,” Della mumbled, trying to suck the words back into her mouth as fast as she spoke them.