Jerome Turken

Libby left the painting workshop a little early to call home before meeting Arthur.  In the lobby two young women chatting in front of the phones stepped aside for her.

“You know, you have a spot of paint on your forehead,” one said.  “Just above your right eye.  I think there’s some on your hair too.”

“There’s some on your blouse too,” the other said.

“Oh my,” Libby said.  “I was sloppy today.”

Edgy would be more accurate.  The brushes got away from her, the  pigments wouldn’t mix right.  Arthur was on her mind.  He had been on her mind all week.  What got into her, letting herself go so far with him, letting him hold her, kiss her, feel her.  No, I have to put a stop to it.  Today, before it turns into something.

Dialing home she saw him enter the lobby from the street.  A smile brightened his face when he caught sight of her and he waved; and despite her decision she felt her own mood lighten.  Her merry Mondays.  Will this be the last one?

Bebe answered.

“Hi, boops,” Libby said.  “How’s everything?”

“All right,” Bebe said.  “Daddy called.”

“Daddy’s not home yet?”

“No.  He said something came up.”

“Let me talk to Renee,” Libby said.

Arthur was watching her, a trace of his smile still on his face.  Like Mel in the old days when we’d meet someplace, how his face used to light up when he caught sight of me.  Almost the same expression.  Am I going to disappoint him?  Yes, I’m going to disappoint him.

“Hello, Mrs. Sandler,” Renee said.

“Oh Renee, I’m so sorry about this,” Libby said.  “If I leave right now I can get home in about three-quarters of an hour.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Sandler,” Renee said.  “Actually Mr. Sandler said he’d come on time if I couldn’t stay, and I told him it’s okay.”

“Are you sure. Renee?” Libby said.

“Yes,” Renee said.  “I can stay till Mr. Sandler gets home.”

“Did Eric give you any trouble?”

“He fell asleep right away,”  Renee said.  “He just threw his blanket off once and I tucked him in again.”

“I appreciate this, Renee.”

She took the hand Arthur extended to greet her and felt a hint of a pull.

She stood firm.

“Is something the matter?” Arthur said.

“No.  Yes.  Oh, it’s nothing, really.  Just a little problem with the baby sitter.”

“You look lovely with that dab of red on your face,” he said.

Her little resistance had unsettled him, she could see it in his face.  “Yes, I know.  Some on my blouse too.  I’d better go back up and see if I can get it out with turpentine.  Didn’t you go to your class tonight?”

“No.  I quit.”

“You quit?”  The elevator door opened.  She held it.

“Yes,” he said.  “It was a waste of time.  I can do better on my own.”  A bit of a smile crept into his face, but mouth only this time, no eyes.  Tight, like when he says goodnight.  “As a matter of fact I quit four weeks ago.  The truth is I’ve been coming just to meet you.”

She felt a rush of heat in her face.  Am I blushing?

“Are you surprised?” he said.

“Yes and no,” she said.  “I won’t be long.”  She let the door close.  Just  to meet me.  Something new.  Where do I go from here?  Beg out and go home?

Renee sitting there waiting till—who knows what time Mel will get home.

The workshop had just ended.  The students were wrapping their canvases and putting them back into the racks.  At the shelves where she stored her materials she poured some turpentine into a small dish and took it to the ladies room.

The turpentine‑soaked patch on her white cotton blouse had a definite

pink hue still.  This is not going to come out.  In the mirror she examined her forehead and hair where she had removed the paint.  She took a vial of toilet water from her handbag and dabbed both spots, then put a dab on her blouse.  She primped her hair in the mirror, staring at herself.  Well, well, he comes just to meet you.  What are you going to do with this new development, girly?  She made a burlesque face of disgust at herself.  Sometimes I can’t stand you.

Walking to the elevator her body was tingling with the idea of Arthur downstairs waiting for her.  Keeping them waiting.  With Mel in the old days.  Coming out of the subway, got a kick out of spotting him waiting near the entrance of 55 John in a business suit, bumping against the building in that seething impatient way of his, looking at his watch every five seconds, talking to himself.  Putting on the nonchalance as I walked toward him, slow, giving it that little twitch and sway.  How I loved to see that smile flash into his face when he caught sight of me, the way his face went from pure anger to pure pleasure in an instant.

She found Arthur outside in front of the building.  His smile was forced now, his eyes tentative.  No hand offered this time.  Knows there’s something coming.  When she took his arm it was tense.

“Arthur, let’s not go for espresso yet,” she said.  “Let’s go for a walk.”

He shrugged.  “All right, let’s go for a walk.  But it’s going to rain.  I smell it.”

“You can smell rain coming on?  Really?”

“I have a nose for rain,” Arthur said. “I used to love heavy thunder

storms when I was a kid.  Especially in bed at night.  I could smell them

coming on, even before the dark clouds came and the wind picked up and it thundered.  I slept next to a window with one of those old sliding screens that overlooked a lot full of wild grass and weeds and a few trees.  I’d go into a daze listening to the rain and the thunder and watching the streaking drops in the lightning, and feeling the spatter bouncing off the window ledge and the smell of the wet trees and grass in my nose.  I used to imagine that’s what a pretty girl smelled like.”

“I like that little boy,” Libby said.

“I used that in one of my stories,” Arthur said.

They walked in silence toward the Fifth Avenue arch.  Did the sky just light up a bit?  It is going to rain.

“Arthur,” Libby said, “I have something to say.  You saw something in me a while ago, and you were right.  Something is the matter.  Last week should never have happened.  I thought it over.  I’m not prepared to get into that kind of a relationship right now, I’m sorry.  To me, it would mean giving up on my marriage, and I’m just not ready to do that yet.”

“I see,” Arthur said, looking at the ground.

“I’m fighting too hard with myself, Arthur.  With my conscience, or guilt, or whatever it is that’s going on inside this head of mine.  I can’t

continue where we left off last week.  That’s as directly as I can put it.”

“Uh‑huh,” Arthur said.

I see.  Uh-huh.  Like she just told him why she takes vitamin C after breakfast every day.  As they continued on in silence, past the pleasantly lit show windows of the closed shops on Eighth Street, she was waiting for something more from him, what, she didn’t quite know, but certainly something more than I see or uh-huh.  She glanced at him.  His eyes were on the sidewalk, his face stony.

“Well, now that that’s over and done with—”  she halted and held out her hand.  “Friends?”

Arthur turned to her and for five seconds looked directly into her eyes.  Such a sad smile.  Looks so vulnerable.  Something attractive about that.  “Sure, why not?” he said, taking her hand.  “Friends.”

Rumbles of thunder.  People were hurrying to get somewhere before the rain came down.  Near the corner of Fifth Avenue a street hawker was selling umbrellas.  Arthur went over and bought one.

“Do you like to walk in the rain?” he said.

“Yes,” she said.  Why do I feel so close to him right now?   Hold him at a distance to feel close.  Crazy.  She took his arm.

They walked toward Washington Square Park.  Crossing the next intersection on Fifth Avenue a taxi making a turn forced them to scramble back.  Arthur took a roundhouse swipe at it, barely missing its rear fender.  “You stupid sonofabitch!”  His jaw was clenched.  Little knobs of muscle and a large vertical vein protruded from his neck.

“What are you doing!” Libby said.  “You could have broken your hand!”

On top of the illuminated arch at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the park someone had attached a bunch of balloons, which were leaning eastward, buffeted by the wind.  They entered against the flow of people hurrying out.  Just inside, sitting on the ledge that enclosed the circular basin of the fountain, was a frail, ragged woman of maybe forty‑five, her fingers scraping across the loose twisted strings of an old guitar that had a huge crack on its surface.  She was caressing it as if it were a baby, and was humming in a barely audible squeak.  Along the path the trees were swaying and rustling softly and clusters of last year’s fall leaves were being swept and swirled by the wind.  Beyond the park the lit windows of the main building of the university cast a fluorescent starkness across the tops of the trees and down, which almost shrouded the softer hue of the park lamps.

“You know, I never had a close woman friend like you before,” Arthur said.  “Frankly, I wouldn’t know how to act.  I mean, what am I allowed?”

“Please don’t talk like that.”

“No, I’m serious.  I wouldn’t know how to treat you.  What do I say?  I mean can I take you around?  Can I hold your hand?  Do we kiss goodnight?  Can I hold you close every once in a while?  I mean, how do I act with you, Libby?”

“Arthur, don’t do this.  Now please, it’s settled and done with.  I just

can’t get involved with you that way.”

They had reached the children’s playground.  Libby veered toward a

bench near its entrance.  “Let’s sit down,” she said.

On the walk in front of the bench was a hopscotch game drawn jaggedly uneven in pink chalk.  A yellow toy truck lay on its side in the grass near the playground gate.  Left behind.  Just like the one Mel bought for Eric last week.

Playing and laughing with it earlier, then crying for missing it.  Will it be there

tomorrow when he comes back with mommy looking for it?

Arthur was looking directly into Libby’s eyes.  Such a sad smile.  He hooked the umbrella on the back of the bench and took her hand and cupped it in both of his and brought it to his mouth and kissed it.  “Nothing is settled and done with, Libby.  I’m not a school boy.” He took a deep breath and let it out with a whooshing deflation of his whole body.  “How can I have a simple friendship with the woman I love?”

She felt her insides vibrate.  Her arms were tingling.  Love now.  She withdrew her hand.

“That’s right, I’m in love with you, Libby,” Arthur said.  “I’m in love with you.  After last week, holding you close, feeling your body against mine, kissing you, God, I don’t think I could stand even one evening of a simple friendship with you, that’s the truth.  Impossible!”

Squeaky wheels.  Walking toward them was the woman with the broken guitar, pushing a supermarket cart.  The guitar was resting on top of several stuffed plastic sacks squeezed into the cart.  She parked the cart in front of them and faced them and bowed jerkily like a child on a school stage.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen,” she said.  She had on an old Ike jacket with sergeant’s stripes, a dark skirt that draped unevenly at her ankles, plaid socks and men’s shoes.  She took up the guitar and reached deep into one of the sacks and pulled out a small toy whistle.  She blew a shrill note then put it back into the sack, elaborately feeling around for the same spot from which she took it.  She put an ear to the guitar and plucked each of the two loose, mangled strings, yielding no sound except for the scrape of her

thumb across them, then gave each of the three remaining tuning pegs a few

turns, which had no effect on the strings.  Finally she looked up at them.

“I will now sing Beautiful Dreams,” she said.  I wrote it especially for President Lincoln on the occasion of my first visit to the White House.”  And she launched into her insane performance, accompanying herself with the defunct guitar, her lips in frantic motion but uttering no sound except for the last word of each otherwise silent line, which came out in a wild screech:

                         “              … cold!

                            … old!


                          … louse!

                          … dry!

                                         … cry!”

When she finished she took her jerky child’s bow several times in different directions as if facing an audience in an auditorium.

Libby opened her handbag.  Arthur put his hand on it to stop her.

“Don’t,” he said.  “She spits at women.”  He reached into his pocket and took out some coins and gave them to her.  “She wasn’t always like that.  She was just a likeable Village character for a long time, then she got involved with all kinds of bizarre stuff, and a few years ago she stepped over the line altogether.”

“God bless you, ladies and gentlemen,” the woman said.  She put the

guitar back into her cart, and as she started to push it up the walk caught sight of the toy truck.  She ran over to pick it up.

“This is mine,” she said.  “I left it here yesterday.”  She elaborately

placed it in one of her sacks as if there was a designated place for that too and

continued on.

Eric came to Libby’s mind again.  “A little boy is going to be awfully disappointed tomorrow,” she said.

“Not for long,” Arthur said.  “His mother will buy him another one.”  He took his glasses off and held them at of one of the temple tips and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and stared at the ground.

He’s hurt.  How long has it been since someone wanted me like this.  When did Mel stop wanting me?  When did his wedding band get too tight for him to wear?  He took it off, he was going to get it enlarged.  It never went back on his finger.  She had an urge to take hold of Arthur’s head and draw his cheek to her bosom.  Say something.

“Arthur, I know we appeal to each other,” she said. “We both know it.  But love?”

“Please don’t presume to tell me how I feel, Libby,” Arthur said.  “I know how I feel.  I love you.  Is that so hard for you to believe?”  He smiles. The more he smiles the sadder he looks.  “That very first time in Figaro’s.  As soon as you started talking your manner grabbed me.  Your smile, the way you purse your lips or puff your cheeks when you pause to think about something.  The wetness of your mouth, the little irregularities in your teeth.  Even your smell.  I think I was already in love with you before we said goodnight that evening.”  He looked up at her.  She felt her face flush.  “Every time we’d say goodnight I’d want to take you in my arms and kiss you and caress you but I’d hold myself back.  And I’d smile.  All those stupid, fake smiles, feeling so depressed inside that I’d want to go home and shoot myself.  And then beginning my wait for the next Monday to see you again.  For the past four months Monday’s been the only day in the week for me.  And then last week—”  He had his glasses clasped in his fist, with which he kept tapping the top of his thigh.  Light from somewhere reflected in a dim glimmer in his lashes.  Tears?  He shook his head and took a deep breath.  “Do you think it’s just a matter of turning you off like you turn off a lamp?  I fall asleep thinking about you.  I wake up thinking about you.  I think about you all day.  All day!  In the evening I put on this Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth and drop down on the sofa in a stupor playing that movement over and over, seeing you, smelling you, touching you, for I don’t know how many hours on end.  I’ve been living you for the past four months, Libby.  You think I can settle for simple friendship?”  Beside the bridge of his nose were impressions left by his glasses.  He looked exhausted.  “I love you so much I’m completely off balance.  Even writing … ”

Young shouts.  A boy and girl.  “Hoo‑hoo! Wah‑wah!”  Girl‑giggle.  They came running up the walk toward them.  The girl shouted after the boy: “If I ever get hold of you, Eliot!”  He kept letting her get close enough to touch him then maneuvering out of her reach with goofy exaggeration while doing his own touching and grappling, yelling it up: “Hoo‑hoo!  Wah‑wah!”  The boy passed them by, but the girl, when she reached the hopscotch course, stopped and gave it a go.  Her thin legs danced through the boxes with girlish grace, her short skirt swinging and swirling about her little hips.  The boy came back and watched her with pure admiration.  Something to be admired, that cute little wisp with her big eyes and little nose and pouting lips.  All brightness and

movement, a daisy in the wind.  Look at her flitting across those lines, giving it

something extra, some complicated little dance sequence.  A virtuoso.

“Ha! ha! ha!  You stepped on a line!” the boy yelled.  “You stepped on a line!”

“I did not!”

“You did so!” the boy pointed to one of the rub marks in the lines.  “You went out of bounds!  Here, see?  Right here, you stepped on this line.”

The girl turned to Libby.  “Did I do that?  Did I step on that line?”

Libby had been so taken with the girl’s general movement that she wasn’t giving to much attention to the exact placement of her feet, but she said:

“No, you didn’t.  I was watching.”

The girl looked at the boy and stuck her tongue out.  “Nya!  See that? I did not step on that line.  This lady is my witness.”

“She must be blind,” the boy said.  “You stepped out of bounds.  I saw it with my own eyes.”

“Oh, you’re crazy,” the girl said.

“How old are you?” Libby said.

“Almost thirteen,” the girl said.  She ran into the playground and

hopped on a swing.  The boy followed.

“Were you good at hopscotch?” Arthur asked.

“Average,” Libby said.  “A little klutzy actually.”

“You?  I can’t imagine you being klutzy at anything.  You’re so beautiful.”

Wet eyes.  Yes, tears.  The way he keeps staring at me.  I’m so

beautiful.  Wrinkles creeping in around the eyes, spreading ass, flabbing boobs,

bulging belly, stretch marks.  So beautiful.  “You’re embarrassing me,” she


“You are beautiful.”

A light in a window of the university building facing them went out then immediately on again, as if the building had winked.  There was a glimmer in the sky beyond then a soft roll of thunder.  Arthur extended his legs and made a move to put his hands in his pockets then abruptly drew them in again and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, both thumbs under his chin and both index fingers in the outside corners of his eyes.  Wiping them.  So witty, so sure of himself and crying over me.  Libby, you must still have something.

“Arthur, let me ask you something,” she said. “Where could it possibly lead?  Think about it.  Forget my fears, my guilt about adultery, my conscience, forget all that for a minute and just think about what we’d be getting into.”

“I thought about it enough, Libby,” Arthur said.  “I thought about it enough.  I drove myself crazy thinking about it.  I don’t know how many times

I told myself, Arthur, get out of this thing.  It’s not for you, it’s not for you, it’s

not for you.  It’s no use.  I can’t control my feelings.”

“Arthur, listen to me,” Libby said.  “I’m a housewife with two kids.  I run a household all day and all night.  Where am I going to find room in my life for an affair?  What it would boil down to is sneaking a few hours once or twice a week for some sex.  We’d become enemies in a month, Arthur.  Lying for opportunities, how do you think that would make me feel?  I’d get angry at

myself, and then I’d blame you and get angry at you, and I’d go crazy and I’d

drive you crazy.  It just won’t work.”

“I know, I know,” Arthur said.  “Don’t you think I’m aware of all that?  Why do you think I quit that damn course?  It was because of you, it was to get away from you once and for all.  But I can’t do it, I just can’t stay away from you.  We say goodnight and I get depressed and I tell myself, that’s it, it’s finished.  And then the next Monday at eight o’clock I’m on my way to meet you again.  I have no control over myself.  It’s beyond my rational control, so don’t try to reason with me.  It won’t do any good.”

There was another glimmer then a rumble in the distant sky.  A stillness settled over the park that was broken suddenly by giggling and screeching from the girl on the swing.  “That’s too high, Eliot.  Stop looking up my skirt.”

“Who’s looking up your skirt?”

“Please!  I’m going to fall!”

“Aah, don’t worry!  Just hold on tight!”

“Come on, that’s enough, Eliot!  If you don’t let me down I swear I

won’t talk to you for the rest of my life!  Let me down and let’s go for pizza

now!  It’s going to start raining any minute!  We’ll get all wet!”

“You’re afraid of a little water?  Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little water.”

Beyond them almost all the windows in the university were now dark.  A flash of lightening followed by a loud clap of thunder, and then the rain came down in a patter of heavy drops.  Libby made a move to rise but immediately

Arthur was kneeling in front of her, his arms about her thighs grasping the top

of her buttocks, his head in her lap.

“What are you doing!” Libby said.

In a few seconds the walk was covered with water.  The boy and girl, splashing through the puddles hand in hand, ran toward the entrance, staring at them as they passed.  The insolent smile on that boy’s face.  The hem of her skirt was ruffled high on her thigh by the press of Arthur’s head.

“Arthur, get up, will you?” she said.  “We’re getting soaked!”  Arthur made no move to release her.  “Arthur, please!”  She attempted to rise again, but he was holding her there with strength.  She could feel his warmth pressing into her.  She reached for the umbrella hanging over the back of the bench.  Arthur was holding her so fast that she had to strain to get hold of it. She opened it and tried to hold it over both of them.

A man with a dog on a leash came hurrying past looking at them, turning his head to take another glance after he passed.

“Come on, Arthur, get up,” Libby said.  She placed her hand on his cheek and gave it a nudge, but when he pressed closer she felt stirrings between her thighs—a numbness took hold of her and she succumbed to the warmth of his embrace, and for one brief moment the rain, the park, nothing else existed.  A little shock of conscience restored her composure.

“What now, Arthur?” she said.  A puddle had formed where he was kneeling, in which the dense drops now splashed in the widening and breaking circles.  She took hold of his wrists and removed his arms forcefully and got up.  “Come on, walk me to my car.”

He remained on his knees looking up at her for a long moment, then

crossed his arms on the bench and rested his head on them, as if he were going

to sleep.

“Arthur, I think you’re being a little weird,” she said.  He didn’t move.  She stuffed the handle of the umbrella through his armpit and adjusted it to cover his head, and started to walk toward the Waverly Place entrance.  She felt unhinged, as if she had had too much wine.

Arthur caught up to her and held the umbrella over her.  “I’m sorry, Libby, I’m sorry.  I’m so wacked out I don’t even know what I’m going to say or do next.”

“You’re going to walk me to my car.”  She took his arm and moved close.  They walked the four blocks in silence.

“I’ll drive you home,” she said when they reached the car.

“No,” he said.  “I’ll walk.”

“Don’t be foolish.  It’s pouring.  Look at you, you’re drenched.

“I’d rather walk,” he said.

She unlocked the car and got in and rolled the window down.  “Are you sure?” she said.

“Yes.”  He had closed the umbrella and was holding it in his armpit and writing something in his pad.  He tore the page out and handed it to her.  On it was written his address and apartment number.

“I won’t meet you at the school next week,” he said.  Droplets of water covered his face and glasses.  “I’ll be home, waiting for you after your workshop.  You decide.”

“All right,” she said.  “I’ll decide.”

Rain was spattering the windows but in the rear view mirror she could

see his receding silhouette, the umbrella slung on his shoulder like a rifle.  Letting himself get soaked through and through like that—he does have a crazy streak.  She took a half dozen tissues from the box above the dash and wiped her face and hair, then had to use another wad to dry them decently.  The dash clock said 10:20.  Is Mel home?