Taxi Driver, 2005 (oil on panel, 15 x 23 cms) by permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
‘He’s changed lanes!’
‘It’s okay. Trust me. I’m all over it. If he takes the filter to the airport then so can we. Once we get through this tunnel.’
‘Don’t lose him.’
‘Take it easy. I won’t lose him. I’ve got this under control. Just relax.’
Looking in the rear view mirror I don’t like what I see. He’s sweating. Dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief. He’s panting. His eyes are bulging. Bloodshot. Maybe I should’ve heeded to my instinct after all. I had a bad feeling as soon as he banged on the window, with his “follow that car … the black one,” waving two hundred dollar bills at my face “whatever it costs … but go now!” Pointing at the black car waiting for the lights, fifty yards up the road. Pulling on the back passenger seat door handle that I’d locked against all the Brooklyn crazies.
You get a sixth sense in this job. I’m sure it’s the same in other lines of work. But for me it’s a feeling in the back of my neck. Like some kind of danger barometer. When I wound down the window to this guy the needle began to jump. It wasn’t just his body language: the agitation, the high anxiety. Or the pitch, tone and tempo of his voice. Something else altogether. What the hell I thought. It’d been a bad week. The fuel pump had finally blown, so I’d had no work Wednesday and a two-hundred-and-eighty dollar garage bill. Today I’d waited two hours at JFK for a thirteen dollar job. The luck of the draw they say; but that made three unlucky airport draws in a row. To top it off I get a call from Maxine while I’m waiting at the taxi-rank telling me if I miss another childcare payment I’d be hearing from her lawyer. My ear was still buzzing from her abuse when I get the bang on the window.
Driving along I keep a careful eye on him. And a third eye on the black car. And another eye on the road. But I figure he needs me and so long as the black car stays on the Van Wyck Expressway it’ll work out okay. There’s an old hymn on the radio. One I recognize from church days. Then the preacher comes on. He talks about life’s journey. The stresses of the modern world. “Each one of us has a unique pathway,” he says. “Look to the scriptures. Proverbs 3:6.”
A hundred yards ahead, the black car takes a sudden left off the freeway, before the airport, onto an unlit slip-road towards the cargo warehouses.
He’s leaning over the front seat. His breath steaming in my ear. In the mirror his face is huge and red, veins bulging in his neck, and eyes looking like something from the devil.
‘Follow that car! You! … Turn! Don’t mess with me!’
“… Seek God’s will in all you do and he will show you the path to take.”
Oil on panel, 76 x 100 cm, 1984, by permission of the artist. Max Ferguson.
So you’re sorry. Sorry that you don’t love me anymore. Sorry that it’s not meant to work for us.
Great timing. Your message, I mean. Five minutes before I was due on stage. You must’ve known I’d see it before I went out there. Standing in the wings. Checking the good luck texts. Even got one from your mother (“You’ve really hit the big time. I saw Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce at The Bitter End when you and Ronny were but twinkles in an eye! Break a leg, sweetie. Love from the one who brought loverboy into your life. xx”). And there was your greeting, nestled in amongst them all. A black hole in a sparkling galaxy. I can only think your timing was deliberate. Like method acting. Like the way you’ve always said my delivery needed toning down. Less upbeat. More deadpan. Go in hard, get out early. Wasn’t that what they taught us at acting school? If you wanna be a stand-up. In hard, out early. Like you and me, eh? Full on from the beginning. To the end? But I wasn’t ever planning to get out, early or late. It seems like that’ll be you. Your plan. In this comedy imitating tragedy.
But it worked. You slowed me right down. Like I was in a trance.
If you want to know, the routine went over really well. I ran with the hipster café number. Started off with the gag about menus dribbled into the sawdust on the floor. Then about the new super seed that no one could pronounce except for the waiter. From Peru. And how you know it’s good for you by the length of time it sticks between your teeth. Perfect for the Village crowd. But your “sorry … I realise I don’t love you” kept rolling around the back of my mind. So. Less manic. So. More … measured … subdued.
Thinking about it, maybe I should arrange for a catastrophic surprise just before every gig. Like shock therapy without the electrodes. To keep me detached. Mono-toned. To get my timing right. Yes. And then I could build it into my act. The way so many comics do who’ve just had a baby … or turned lesbian. Pooh and hairy legs. Leaking breast-milk and furry cups. That’s it. I’ll run a new routine about emotional pain as the alternative to lithium for manic-depressive stand-ups. And maybe something else (not about the baby we talked of) … but about the comic jilted on her big night. Like the small-town gladiator at the Colosseum in Rome. This funny girl from Avonmore, Pennsylvania. At The Bitter End, 147 Bleecker Street, NYC.
You say by the time I get home you’ll be gone. Better that way, you said. Well the M train’s late, so there’s no hurry.
They liked me. At The Bitter End. They want me to come back.
I want you to come back.
To me … please.
Not in hard. Not out early.
Not this too too bitter end.
Oil on canvas, 91 x 142 cm, 2011, by permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
Looking into each other’s eyes. Holding dear these precious moments. A reversal of sorts, in the turn of events. A name-band to tag in case of forgetfulness. If words fail. If all gets lost. And will you take away with you his watch? When the time finally comes? Your father’s watch? Will you slip it on to your wrist? When the time finally comes? His watch. That matched his pulse. The rise and the fall of the day. Marking off the seconds. The breaths. The heartbeats. That observed the small and large moments of a life well lived. Checked the minutes needed to meet the train. The walk from here to there. Well timed. Even rehearsed. Those sometime hours passed in anxious wait. For an event. A joy. A calamity. All the small and large events. Of a life well lived. That looked and said it’s time to go! the game’s about to begin! ten minutes ’til bed time! let’s not be late! we’re early! The metronome of decades, now melding into moments. Now telescoping. The house of prayer, where you stand, where you lie down. How the hands turn back and pause, returning time to the source. In a forest. A first flush of love lain out on a picnic rug. Of wool. Of taffeta. Ruffled on the dank-leaved grassy slope. The sound of water. The sense of promise. A moment to cherish. Another moment. A game of pool under a fluorescent light. Like a winter’s night. Snow in the darkened street below. The smooth special table. Like a lawn. Blue or green. The spheres, solid and weighty. A field of dreams. You two. Like communion. Like complicity.
The watch. Ever present. Pacing the future. Leaving the past in its wake. The watchman, just out of view. Awaiting the allotted hour and minute and second. Patient. No soothsayer is he. More an angel. More a ferryman. The punt, still on the pond. The far shore in view. The long-stemmed oar gripped lightly. Held lightly. And, you must, when the time finally comes, with your slender fingers, gently wrest the watch from your father’s wrist. A passing away. A passing on. Taking on the mantle. Taking over the baton.
When the time comes. Reverently, lovingly, you push apart the silver links of the strap; pass it over your fingers, your thumb, the meat of your hand, until it comes to rest, to home, on your own wrist. You look at it. The glass face. The simple dial. The numbers. Counting out the allotted time. Of seconds. Of days. Of years. And you observe the sinews of your arm. The back of your hand. The fingers. And you see what you’ve known all your life. All along. You stretch the muscles, the ligaments, feel the strap expand. You relax. The strap contracts. Settles. In the quiet you hear the tiny sound of time moving forward. In time honoured fashion. All fathers. All sons. The natural order. You this way. He that.
Shoe Repair Shop (Oil on Panel, 16 x 16 inches, 2008) by permission of Max Ferguson.
‘Yes,’ the shoemaker says, placing the boot she’s just handed him on the counter, ‘unusual, for sure.’
But nothing more than that. He’s well used to peculiar requests, having worked in the shop, man and boy, for nigh on fifty years.
‘There was the time in the 1970s,’ he continues, as he rummages around for the pliers, ‘when a sociology professor from Columbia sent students along this street asking us to do all manner of odd things. This young kid comes into my shop, no shoes or socks. “Can you put a leather sole and heel on my bare feet?” says he.’
‘And what did you do?’ she says.
‘I asked him how much was he prepared to pay.’ She looks a bit shocked, but his smile reflected in the mirror, reassures her.
'Ethnomethodology they called it. I like the word … ethnomethodology … it’s got a nice rhythm to it.’ ‘What?’ she says.
‘Ethnomethodology …’ he repeats, relishing the sound. ‘He told me all about it, this kid. You try to disrupt the everyday world. To see how people react. Mr. Tang in the dry cleaners next door. His student came in with a muddy cabbage and asked him to clean it. That kind of thing. But I told my student there wasn’t much you’d describe as an everyday world around here. It’s getting disrupted all the time.’
Then he turns, pliers in hand, and examines the beautifully decorated boot. A surgeon about to perform the autopsy.
When she first got the letter from the solicitor and then went to their offices to collect the old cowboy boot, she was intrigued. But, just like the shoemaker (and the dry-cleaner with the cabbage) she was not that surprised. Her great-uncle was a famous eccentric and she was his only surviving relative. Family stories abounded. Like the rides he used to take on the old steamers in the south, gambling away his gold. His prodigious skill on the stock exchanges. His parsimony, living like a hermit. Travelling in boxcars. A carpet bagger without a carpet. He’d appear at functions, mainly funerals. Tall and gaunt, in his ragged great-coat, grizzly beard and grizzlier greasy hair down to his shoulders. He wore a patch, just to keep one eye spare. And always the same cowboy boots, one of which the shoemaker was now wrestling with.
She watches him as he begins to free the heel from the boot. The sound and sense of it reminds her of the time she had her wisdom tooth extracted. And, like a molar being released, something falls from the yawning jaw of heel and sole and clatters on to the wooden surface of the counter.
The shoemaker lifts the key by the tag and hands it to her. It is cold and heavy in her palm. The string is frayed and worn and the engraving on the metal tag is faded. She squints to read it.
‘What does it say?’ he asks.
‘… Deposit Box 25 … Wells Fargo Bank … Dubois, Idaho …’
Woman brushing her hair (oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches) 2001. By permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
When she was in grade school, the mean kids would call her ‘beaky’, ‘eagle-face’. And, sometimes, in sadder times, when such abusiveness went unpunished, even ‘Jewgirl’. Her mother would hold her close, whispering ‘take no notice … children can be so unkind’ … ‘you are beautiful’ … your nose is a gift from your grandmother’. Sobbing and gulping, Krystina Kwaterski had wished her grandmother had kept her nose to herself.
In one of those huge sweeps of synchronicity, seventy years earlier, Krystina’s grandmother, Vera, had stood before an SS officer on the outskirts of Konigsberg and recited the catechism to prove she was a Catholic and not a Jew. With her baby brother in her arms, the eleven-year-old Vera then fled Konigsberg ahead of the tide of Russian forces sweeping in from the north. Her journey would take her to the Black Forest, on to London as a post-war domestic, and finally to the welcoming sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The only possessions Vera carried with her, an anchor to the past, were her mother’s handglass and hairbrush. The very same, bequeathed to her darling grand-daughter, which Krystina now holds in her hands on this frosty New York morning. Barely a day passes, as she goes through the delicious ritual of brushing her luscious hair, without her thinking of her grandmother. The way, for as long as she can remember, that her grandmother would stand behind her, combing Krystina’s hair, singing old Prussian folk songs, talking of the forests of silver birch, and the smell of pumpernickel bread baking in the oven.
This morning, ice on the streets, Krystina is aglow with the events of the night before. How the dearly departed Vera would have loved the wickedness, the beauty of the story. Even though Krystina had broken one of the few rules she applied to herself. No one night stands. But he was handsome beyond belief. And Blessed was his name. Last night at Oliver Mtukudzi’s first New York tour, downstairs at that new club in the Village, Krystina fell for Blessed Mubvunzo as easy as falling off a log. This Shona warrior, this sculptor of stone, who would, one day, be feted as a master craftsmen of an ancient art and tradition. As she brushes her hair, reliving the passion, the surprising intimacy of their night together, how can Krystina know the events that will unfold? That Blessed will walk up behind her, kiss her gently on the neck, and whisper ‘we will be together until we are old’. How can she know, as her body tingles to the quick, that they will bring to the world a daughter, and call her Precious Mubvunzo-Kwaterski (to ensure no one else on earth can have such a name)? And how can Krystina imagine that one day this daughter, tall and proud, with skin of the gods and a profile of unsurpassed elegance, will brush her thick black wavy hair, lovingly holding in her hand the mirror of her great-great-grandmother?
Popcorn 2015 (oil on panel, 30 x 44 ins.). By permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
“Polly the Popcorn Girl” we used to call her. Even though her name was Rachel. She was a romantic who’d worked at the Astor ever since she was a teenager. She loved films and would talk about her script writing and her dreams of making movies. I’m like Tarantino, she used to say, only he worked in a video store and I’m selling popcorn in an art-house cinema. And, as I reminded her once, he’s big into violence and you’re all about love. She was always at the De Beauvoir Club on Fourth and Taylor on the last Thursday of every month. That’s when they had the open mike. She’d get up among the poets and short story writers and read out snippets from her film scripts. Acting out all the voices. Though mostly it’d just be two. A man and a woman. Or woman and a woman. Even a man and a man. Intense. Gritty. Passionate. Heartfelt. She said you never know. There might be an agent in the room. Someone from Hollywood. I went to listen a few times. More Herzog than Spielberg I thought. Not surprising, given she had such a big thing for European cinema. So it was ironic that Wim Wenders’ ‘The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty’ was showing that week. That last night it was a double-bill with ‘Wings of Desire’. You know the one. Colombo with angels and no raincoat. Polly worked the late shift. It’s funny thinking back.
No one had seen him before. Or knew where he’d come from. But we all noticed, without saying, that he gave us the creeps. Waiting in the corridor while we cleaned the cinema. Always with a big box of popcorn. He watched that goalkeeper movie every night. Sitting in the back row. Wrapped around in his huge coat. Afterwards we all said how spooky he was. That weird guy in the trench-coat. Like art imitating life, or whatever the cliché is. I was in the ticket booth that week so I didn’t see the film. But naturally I was curious. A couple of days later I got it out on DVD and I saw what they meant. The goalkeeper losing his touch, his confidence, his direction in life. Then going to the cinema in a strange town and killing the usherette. For no reason. How crazy. And it would’ve been just like Polly to walk to the bus stop with him. She was so kind and trusting. And she probably felt sorry for him. What with him being alone and a stranger to town. And I reckon she would’ve talked to him about her latest scripts and ideas for films. They found her hat down by the river. She always wore that hat. That’s all they’ve found so far. We all got interviewed. And we all gave descriptions of the stranger in the coat. That’s all there was. Descriptions. What we’d seen. Our own bits of the story. And what we knew about Polly.
Couple in Hallway, oil on panel, 30x22 cms, 2009, by permission of the artist, Max Ferguson
‘John, give me the key?’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘I do. This time I do. Really.’
‘Honey, it won’t happen again. I promise.’
The look in her eyes. Defeated. Saddened. Angry. Sadness in her voice.
‘I waited up all night. All through the night … just give me the key.’
‘I’m so sorry. I really am. I promise. Just give me one more chance.’
Last fall, when she handed him the spare key to her apartment she trusted him so completely; they had promised each other so much. This was going to be for real. So what that he had a reputation in the Village and beyond. She’d heard that. But she refused to listen to her friends. Even Julie from the diner who’d had firsthand experience. No, this was him and her. Her and him. Amor Vincit Omnia.
A whole year together. An idyllic time. A time of beauty. Of trust and complicity. Each keeping to the promise of never discussing old lovers. Never describing old love. It was John’s idea, from the very beginning. He said retro-fantasy always messed with his head. He could be as jealous of old lovers, ones he’d never met, as he could be of the here and now. Nothing was to spoil the intensity of their love. They would be the latter day Adam and Eve. Keeping it pure and new and innocent. Starting all over again in their very own Garden of Eden. And so they did. They only had eyes for each other. Soul mates. Body mates. Yet they kept their own lives. Their own interests. Their own friends. Their own apartments. On their anniversary, twelve months to the day and hour from when they first met, John got down on his knees and said he worshiped her, adored her and could imagine them growing old together. They were in Central Park. Leaves falling from the trees. She leant back against a mighty oak, feeling the ribbed contours of its bark in the small of her back. John bent forward and kissed her. She had never felt so vulnerable, so complete, so enamoured.
From upstairs comes the sound of a baby crying. The sounds she had hoped for herself. Dreamed of even: in her sleep; in his arms. The culmination of their love and passion. Life’s longing for itself, indeed. She looks up at him. The hat she’d bought him in Chicago. Playing chess against the hustlers down by Lakeshore Drive. He’d beaten the grandmaster from Kingston Jamaica, with three seconds left on his clock; he’d taken the five bucks, then tipped his hat to the wind, and smiled. A moment she remembers now, she feels so exquisitely now: the thought then of wanting his child. Of wanting him, forever.
So close. The wall against her back. The wall against his. The space between them. Now so huge. And the smell. Of Wild Turkey. Of women. She wants to speak before she cries. Before she crumbles.
‘Just hand me back the key.’
Girl in Miami (oil on panel, 1999, 50 x 76 cm). Reproduced by permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
‘Hey pretty girl. Look at me.’ So says Joe. This beautiful young girl framed by the ocean, the blue sky, the shimmering beach. ‘If the boss says there’s no job, I’ll find you a job. Eh, Brad,’ he says, turning to his friend who’s back inside the kiosk, cleaning down the surfaces. ‘We can find plenty of work for pretty girls like you. Thursday, that’s your name, yeah? Even though today’s Tuesday. Thursday all week. Every day.’ Joe pauses, leans forward, stares at the side of the girl’s face. This girl who stands there, looking away. ‘Don’t like me already?’ he continues. ‘They say I look like Al Pacino … You wanna be an actress, don’t you? The boss showed us your resume … another wanna-be from film school. I can act … Look … “You looking at me?” … or was it the other guy … Robert de Niro?’ Down the beach Thursday sees an old woman walking a dog. It’s sunny and she wears a floppy hat. She’s tall, dressed in a pastel green jacket and matching skirt. And white shoes with a pointed heel that might look out of place on a beach, but the woman has panache. A presence. Her dog is a full-sized poodle. Black with a pink collar and a white bow tied in the hair between its droopy ears. The dog’s diamante-studded lead sparkles in the morning sun. As the woman approaches she seems to grow more elegant, more assured, more spectacular. Even without seeing her eyes, shaded by silver-rimmed sunglasses, Thursday senses an aura of greatness around this
old woman with a dog that glides by her side. A star from the golden days of the studios? A leading lady. Kissed and feted. Adored and adorned. The old lady stops. No more than twenty feet from where Thursday stands. Majestically, almost in slow motion, her dog sits by her side, without the hint of a command. She brings her gloved hand to her forehead, a salute almost, to shield her already shielded eyes from the low-lying sun. Thursday follows the old lady’s line of vision. There on the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean is a fifty-foot yacht, fulsomely sailed, racing with the wind. The old lady, the diva, the goddess, watches it progress. What memories, wonders Thursday? Of Cannes? Monte Carlo? The Isle of Capri? ‘Hey, wanna-be-actress-girl,’ says Joe, breaking the magic. ‘Just called the boss. He’s not coming in today. Or tomorrow. Tell her come back Thursday, he said ... hey, that’d be good luck. Thursday’s child is full of grace … hey … maybe you can be Grace Kelly, the one who died in the car crash. Just like that Mansfield chick, but with her head still attached …’ Thursday carries on ignoring this Joe from the kiosk. She hears some more of the words … “beauty queen” … “pumping gas” … “Miami vice” … but she is entranced, beguiled, by this elegant lady who looks out to sea. And the marvellous white-sailed yacht, licking the wind, forging its course through the crystal clear waters.
Late in the Day 2009, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 30 inches, by permission of the artist, Max Ferguson.
PAUL and REBECCA FEEL the pleasantness of the sun on their faces. PAUL WATCHES a young couple pushing a stroller. HE WONDERS if he will still be alive on the child’s first day at school. HE CALCULATES he’ll be eighty-three years old. REBECCA SPOTS a seagull on the wing. SHE tries to REMEMBER its Latin name which SHE KNOWS she once knew. HE FEELS a sharp pain in his chest. SHE HEARS a tinny ringing sound deep in the cavity of her right ear. HE SAYS ‘I heard on the radio that Karl Malden died.’ ‘… Oh,’ SHE SAYS ‘… I thought he’d died already.’ SHE SCRATCHES the back of her neck. PAUL LICKS his dry lips.
… … … REBECCA FEARS something unknown … … …
PAUL WHISTLES a tune. In unison, REBECCA SINGS gently under her breath ‘the reason is … because something’s happened to me …’ … and they BOTH RECOLLECT the bald black man in the spotlight at the Café Carlyle. PAUL SMELLS the Jamaican rum he used to drink when they went dancing and SHE HEARS the piano keys tinkling. ‘Is he dead?’ SHE SAYS. ‘Who?’ HE SAYS. In HER MIND’S EYE SHE SEES the face of the pianist, but can’t CONJURE the name. PAUL NOTICES a police helicopter in the distant sky and makes a MENTAL NOTE to put the new car in the garage like he’d promised he would. REBECCA FRETS about her eldest son and his impending redundancy. ‘Bobby Short,’ HE SHOUTS, excitedly. ‘Ah, yes. Of course,’ SAYS REBECCA. ‘… still got a couple of grey cells between us.’ They BOTH SMILE, REBECCA for what she just SAID, PAUL
for what he’d RECALLED. SHE SAYS ‘Lovely and warm still.’ HE SAYS ‘That’s why we came here.’ ‘Yes,’ SAYS REBECCA. ‘For the climate,’ SAYS PAUL. ‘Not just for that,’ SHE SAYS. ‘No,’ HE SAYS, ‘not just for that.’
… … … REBECCA FEELS a sense of loss … … …
They BOTH WATCH a man and woman saunter by, arm in arm. REBECCA RECALLS a walk with Paul on the pier at Coney Island and the sounds of the funfair … when they and love were young. PAUL WORRIES that he will die before REBECCA, leaving her alone. HE BELIEVES it is he who will cope better with widowhood. Getting later,’ SHE SAYS, ‘… all of a sudden.’ ‘Hmm …’ SAYS PAUL. ‘Let’s head back … soon.’ HE WONDERS if he’ll eat the cold chicken in the fridge. SHE THINKS the dog needs a bath.
… … … They BOTH KNOW they’re loved … … …
And they BOTH KNOW that when they get up to go they will REACH for each other’s hand and FEEL the TOUCH and WARMTH of each other’s fingers as they entwine. PAUL and REBECCA STAND UP from sitting. REBECCA TRIES TO REMEMBER when she last took a swim in the ocean. PAUL SINGS WITHOUT REALISING HE IS SINGING ‘I like the likes of you … I like the things you do …’ REBECCA REMEMBERS WITHOUT REALISING SHE’S REMEMBERING a dance in a church hall and the swish and swirl of her frock.
… … … TOGETHER they WALK on. … … …
Thoughts on upcoming events, new book ideas, and the agonies and ecstasies of the creative process.