My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Bloodshot eyes scan the face reflected in the mirror on the medicine chest. “Oh, baby,” whispers a raspy voice, “what have you done now?”
Trembling fingers of a right hand jerk open the cabinet door, the left automatically groping inside, searching for a pain-killer, something high in caffeine content, sure to be enormous to pass through the dehydrated throat. ‘Risky relief,’ observes the muddled brain as sleepy eyes watch a thumb crush the tablets in the open palm of a dirty, moist hand.
A low cover of grey, white, and black clouds tumble violently over and into each other, sped along by a brusque, angry wind. Indifferent and preoccupied, passersby on the streets and sidewalks follow invisible paths, paying no attention and offering no sympathy to the weakened man struggling to awaken in a tiny room which seems to him to float above them, loosely, in the air.
His ruined mouth wants to reject the burning sweetness of the toothpaste. The sandy tongue scrapes over the filmy teeth. A reflexive swallow induces an irresistible gag when the sugary mint of the foam teases salivary glands alive.
“You are brushing that tooth apart,” he accuses his reflection in mock outrage, his tongue probing the incomplete root canal, a repair begun years ago to an injury incurred even earlier. The softened calcium crumbles under the brush strokes. Bits get caught in its bristles. He minces others between his bicuspids like an annoying hangnail finally gnawed clean.
Instantaneously, with neither warning nor prologue, the memory of the accident rushes into the clouded mind with tortuous clarity. The sound of speed, the brilliance of the snowy hill, the shouts of the alarm mingle, then obscure each other, and recur only to disappear in a single crystalline moment.
From the toothbrush stopped in mid-stroke, foam trickles onto the heel of his stilled hand. He stares in stunned terror at his gaping lips releasing streams of white onto his stubbly chin, while in the fixed vision of his mind’s eye the scene impossibly continues.
The steel-grey Packard screams down the incline and strains into the long curve approaching the two-lane bridge. Chains around the spinning tires spit brown slush and clumps of cindered ice into the roadside weeds as the lumbering, overcrowded sedan shakes onto the iron and macadam span. The wide Susquehanna is stopped dead between the pylons of the bridge, halted by great floes of ice that jut into the frigid air like a knife-thrower’s blades arrested by their target. Red light of winter dusk spreads a feverish pail across the silent icescape and illuminates the woolen caps and coats of the eight youths in the car guzzling beer from amber bottles and belching the agitated foam after each greedy draught.
“Slow down! I’m gonna puke!”
The scream rings in his ears as clearly in recall as it had in the steamed-up automobile; the desperate voice of the nauseous boy, embarrassed and afraid to vomit inside the car, cuts time away. The convulsing chest and sweated brew appear, a vividly delineated image, in the mirror of the present.
“I can’t stop on the bridge! Stick your head out the window!” the driver commands, left hand on the wheel, the right lifting a bottle to his wet lips.
The iron rails in the bridge’s sides whisk past like the pickets of a fence. In the back seat the sick boy lunges over his companions’ laps to lean out of the window on the passenger side. Feet flailing as he heaves into the gusting air, face red with the fading light, he expels the beer in surges of white and yellow from his open mouth and through his widened nostrils.
Inside everyone laughs, ridiculing him for hanging out a car window in dead winter. Speed streams his vomit across the vehicle’s side and into the muddy snow on the roadway. In the mockery the driver weaves the car momentarily into the left lane, squarely into the path of an oncoming truck. With a quick yank of the Packard’s wheel he swerves to the right, avoiding a collision, bringing the car almost against the bridge’s side. In the barely perceptible instant the sudden action thrusts the head of the puking boy between two of the iron pickets. It smashes in a red explosion. The wind carries its splattering substance onto the car and the bridge, onto the snow and ice below. It stripes the boy’s frozen vomit with scarlet rivulets.
The toothbrush falls when he lifts his hands to shield his face. The dull thud of his body slumping against the mirror recalls the brutal impact of the Packard’s window frame and jolts him into awareness. The smeared lather of the toothpaste on his nose and cheek is warm and sticky, like the blood from the lacerations caused by the shattering glass. As when he first sensed his injury, his tongue gingerly tests the throbbing spot in the center of his bottom teeth. Spitting foam and water, he coughs into his reflection, shivering with a forgotten horror newly revived.
“Please. Not now. Oh, Jesus, not now. I must get ready. I have to get uptown.”
The shower spray pierces him like cold needles and the rough towel seems to tear the skin from his back, wiping sensation away. While combing his hair he peers into the mirror, its surface dappled with spots of toothpaste, and wonders at how suddenly the trance descended. The painful rush of blood into his head when he bends to tie his shoes reminds him of how powerfully the apparition had overtaken him. Downstairs he waits impatiently in the cold drizzle for an available taxi, but when a clumsy, box-like Checker pulls up he remembers the Packer and waves the driver on. Finally settled, anxiously sweating, in a streamlined Chevy, he mumbles his destination and leans back, trying to inject drops into his scratchy eyes, his tongue still nervously toying with the shattered tooth.
Upon arrival he pays hurriedly and ignores the greeting of the doorman who helps him from the cab. The scene at the main entrance to Sotheby’s is typically active. Agents and dealers clutch briefcases and folders while waiting for the elevator, small talk belying their distrust of each other. Private collectors allow Sotheby employees to guide them through the lobby, smiling in thanks to the clerks’ obligatory inquiries about their health. Spectators study the salon directory and glance about uneasily, first at the elevator, then at the buyers entering it, then back to the directory, hoping not to look foolish as they attempt to decipher the floor plan.
He rejects the group waiting for the slow lift and enters the stairwell to climb the three flights, his head throbbing once more, his legs and arms aching with the effort. In the resonant echo of his footsteps he hears again the distant screams, the crumbling of sheet metal against iron, the chaotic splintering of glass. Pale and weak, he pulls open the door to the busy foyer of the auction salon and notes with displeasure that Baeder is nowhere in sight.
At the desk he asks the monitor who hands him the sale catalogue, “Have you seen Herr Baeder this morning, Miss Langer?”
“Not yet, Mr. Gdaniec.” She leans over the desk to add quietly, “The auction will commence very soon. I suggest you take your seat immediately.”
Surveying the crowd filing into the salon, he tightly rolls the booklet and taps it staccato against his palm. “Yes, thank you. I will. When Herr Baeder arrives, please show him to my chair, will you?”
“Indeed. Will you have some coffee this morning, sir?”
“With pleasure,” he responds abruptly, startled when a slight touch of his tongue on the broken tooth returns the imagery of his reverie to the forefront of his racing mind: The splattering blood; the deafening crash of impact; the smarting pain in his mouth. Pretending to peruse the catalogue, he enters the salon and takes his seat on the aisle, barely acknowledging the greeting of competitors with discreet, meaningless nods.
“What is happening to me? Why can’t I shake this?” he pleads apprehensively. “And where the hell is Baeder? Where are the lists? The ceiling bids? The estimates?” He pages quickly through the booklet for information as the auctioneer intones her traditional salutations, repeating the regulations and conditions of sale before eliciting bids on the first lot.
His coffee arrives on a valet’s table and is set in the aisle beside him. He gratefully notes the glass of water the monitor has included, but before he can express his gratitude the porter bends and hands him a white envelope.
“A messenger from Herr Baeder has just delivered this, Mr. Gdaniec,” the young man whispers.
“Oh, I see. Thank you, Stephen. And please thank Miss Langer for me.”
Unnoticed by the buyers and spectators noisily rearranging chairs, he slips from the envelope a note written in Baeder’s distinctly European script and finds, folded in it, four aspirin.
“How too kind of him,” he thinks contemptuously. Then, after taking the aspirin with a large swallow of water, he reads:
I shall most probably not appear this morning as I must see the items from yesterday’s London sale through Customs at Kennedy. Do be sure to note the competing bidders, and the spread between our and Sotheby’s estimates and the final purchase prices. We are most interested in the Warhol paintings and the Oldenburg ‘Notes’ but overbid widely only where important (some pieces will complete our folios) and lose only those Warhols we can have from the Factory if essential.
N.B. the Oldenburg note for ‘Colossal Clothespin’ with the photo of Brancusi’s ‘The Kiss’ attached, and go especially for the Warhol ‘Jackie.’ Our estimates and ceiling prices are cited overleaf. Reach me at the usual line at Kennedy or tomorrow in Berlin.
The auctioneer’s speed is impressive. She must deal 100 lots in this morning session and wastes no time escalating bids as long as she has clients who follow. Georgina Billinsgate, her trenchcoat still over her shoulders, makes lively tries for prints but is opposed strongly by Lenz of Cologne. Their respective aides tap frantically at calculators trying hastily, as the sums flicker across Sotheby’s electronic board of currency equivalencies, to confirm the bids’ conversions into pounds sterling and deutschmarks.
The works are dealt quickly, prices rising to the exclusion of most bidders within seconds. Harry claims a ten-piece suite of silkscreened prints of New York transvestites done by Warhol in the mid-’70s. His sweep of the portfolio dismays Prevost of Paris and Schumann of Dusseldorf, who confer agitatedly with assistants as the auctioneer awards the purchase to the Gallery Baeder of Berlin.
A series of inconsequential Oldenburg notes are bought at inflated prices Harry will not consider by Swanson’s agent, the swarthy and squinting Texan, Lowry, who grins with glee at each successful purchase. But when the mock-up for the ‘Colossal Clothespin’ comes into view on the revolving platform on the stage, Harry remarks the attached photo of the Brancusi sculpture and waits. Authorized to bid for an absent buyer, the auctioneer opens at $250, competing with Lowry who forces the bidding to $500. Harry apparently uninterested in the notes until now, lifts his card at $525 and Lowry, shocked raises a handkerchief to his brow. At $600, the absent buyer withdraws and Harry raises to $750 in a single increase. Lowry snaps shut his briefcase amid the comments of spectators.
“750. I have $750, ladies and gentlemen. That’s $750 once. $750 twice,” repeats the auctioneer. She turns to Lowry, who stares fixedly at the work, feigning indifference, and waits the standard three seconds before calling, “Fair warning …” She casts a last glance at Lowry, brings down the gavel, and announces with a slight smile and nod towards Harry, “And down it goes. Sold at $750 to Mr. Gdaniec of the Gallery Baeder.”
Pleased with his success, Harry leans back in relief to await his last piece. In his repose he takes a mouthful of water to rinse his parched mouth; the swirling of the liquid provokes a review of the disquieting experience he underwent while preparing to leave his apartment. His inability to explain either the origin of his vision or the intensity with which it overtook him troubles him as much as the violence of its imagery. He ponders the event, not without fear, reluctant to admit it as a hallucination.
The auctioneer’s voice intrudes upon his speculation as she indicates, “Lot 66. Jackie. Silkscreen on canvas by Andy Warhol, from the series The Week That Was: I, 1963. Provenance: Collection of John Ashbery, New York.” As the easel holding the painting slowly turns toward the audience, the crowd falls silent.
Painted in flat, grainy black on a somber blue background is a duplication of one of the famous photographs of Jacqueline Kennedy taken during the days of her husband’s fatal visit to Dallas and throughout the ensuing week. It depicts the veiled face of the stately widow, jaw set in defiance of her grief, her downcast gaze following the casket as it is lowered into the grave. The artist has increased the size of the image, blurring its detail and separating its lighter expanses into benday dots in the process, giving the figure an insubstantial and ethereal air. It is a face so familiar that here, so long after the photograph was made, its powerful suggestiveness brings to a momentary halt the normal business in the auction salon.
Harry checks the catalogue to seek Sotheby’s estimate: $3500. At the bottom of the list on the back of Wolfgang’s note are the Galerie Bader’s high, $4250, and ceiling, $4500. He studies the noble face in the painting, remembering its proud self-restraint during the tragic time: at the hospital in Dallas; at his side when Johnson took the oath of succession; arriving in Washington on Air Force 1; behind the caisson in the funeral procession; beside the graveside in Arlington. When the auctioneer opens the bidding, his thoughts break the morbid meditation and, trying to clear his head with a shake, Harry thinks, “She will complete our portfolio of ‘The Week …’ I must get this portrait.”
The bidding opens at $1250 and Lowry instantly goes to $1300. Interrupted by a ringing telephone on the monitor’s table, the auctioneer waits to acknowledge Prevost’s raise to $1350. Schumann opposes him to $1750 until, with Lowry watching in open-mouthed surprise, the monitor holding the telephone receiver shows a card indicating a bid of $1800 in representation of the party on the phone. Harry enters a bid of $2000; the monitor nods $2100. Disgruntled, Lowry goes to $2200, sending Prevost, Schumann, and their aides rushing from the salon in a flurry of folders, briefcases, calculators, and overcoats. The auctioneer calls for $2400; Harry raises his card. The monitor goes to $2500 and Harry follows instantly to $2600. Lowry raises his card for a $2750 bid with displeasure, and scowls over his briefcase, scribbling in his catalogue when Harry causes a stir by going right to $3000. The auctioneer, looking intently at the monitor, repeats the bid and waits. The monitor raises a card, showing a bound to $3500. Lowry sputters and slaps his catalogue on his case before wrestling into his coat. The room is silent but for the auctioneer’s calls. “$3500, ladies and gentlemen. I am bid $3500.”
All eyes are on Harry who deliberately traces the numerals on his card and then slowly lifts it, clearly marked $4250.
“Thank you,” says the auctioneer over the murmur passing among the spectators. “The bid is $4250, ladies and gentlemen. That’s $4250.”
The monitor holding the telephone speaks into the receiver, waits, speaks, waits, and looks up nervously as the auctioneer begins her conclusion. “I am bid $4250. That is $4250 once. $4250 twice.” She looks over the room carefully, searching for a raised card, then, turning to the monitor who speaks into the receiver, calls, “Fair warning …” She waits the three seconds, all the time looking at the monitor who finally shakes her head and hangs up the phone.
“Sold,” announces the auctioneer with a sharp rap of the gavel, “at $4250 to Mr. Gdaniec of the Galerie Bader.”
Harry motions for a register. As he signs the note his mind, taxed with the frenetic bidding of the auction, returns abruptly to the morning’s occurrence. A line of sweat breaking on his forehead, he blankly watches the “Jackie” turning on its easel on the stage. When the face has passed completely out of view, he walks directly from the salon towards the elevator, oblivious to the crowd milling about him.
Suddenly, from its periphery to its center, his sight fades. In the encroaching dark haze he sees a woman in the sunlit rear of an open limousine, a grimace of terror on her face as she bends over the shattered skull of her husband, fallen limply in her lap.
His catalogue slips from his hand, his knees give, and Harry stumbles against a table. With a lamenting cry he collapses to the floor, a trickle of saliva slowly oozing from the corner of his open lips.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.