Cover Girl

a story

by J. Orlin Grabbe

Manhattan had changed when I got back from the West Coast. The heat had suddenly dissipated, getting ready for fall, and an occasional breeze found its way down Second Avenue. The post-summer pickup had brought with it a patina of melancholy and a longing for revision and transcendence.

I had presciently, if innocently, removed Salomon Brothers from the cover of my textbook on international finance. Their trading room had adorned the first edition, and the second--with its gentler, though not adactylous, cover--was just making its presence known along Park Avenue and Wall Street when whispers of indiscretion in the auction of government bonds turned to headline hurly-burly. "So what's the story of the girl?" a woman trader of foreign exchange in one of the local banks asked a friend of mine, studying the new cover with a female critical eye. "Is she his girlfriend, or what?"

There really was no story, other than I liked the photograph of the involved, attractive lady standing in a chaotic sea of computer and display terminals, a slightly out-of-focus shot which gave the surrounding room a yellowed air of late night smoke, as if manned by muted traders who filled in forex tickets and softly called out, Where's your Swissie?, while sipping Buds and chalking cue sticks around a pool table.

I had, to be sure, alleged that the cover's real purpose was to bug the Japanese (with whom the book was especially popular), to administer visual cognitive dissonance at the level of bank training programs, it being a private hypothesis of my own that the work environment segregation of sexes provided the underlying passion for the consumption of whiskey in such surprisingly copious quantities in financial areas of Tokyo. Those of that occupation could afford it, it was true, and, true, there was no social stigma attached to public drunkenness, but it was also true, I felt, that the hostess bars, arenas of social flirtation with strictly delimited rules, provided a poor substitute for the ever-present potential of sober or intoxicated fornication with a co-worker of equal and opposite sex, such as enjoyed in the rest of the world. My own forays into inebriation in that same environment had, of course, stemmed from another source entirely: namely, my protracted inability to supply even genus classification to the flora or fauna my chopsticks found floating in the iron pots of the ten- course meals graciously provided by respectful hosts, which inevitably lead to more whiskey while tests of identification were made, waiting for the olfactory and gustatory analysts to return with the recurring and reassuring message that it all tasted like Jameson.

This I explained to my friend, as we sat in my apartment in the safer, if less cozy, culinary environs of Manhattan, whereupon he countered with an overly inquisitive, but crushingly devastating, "What's her name?"

I shamefully confessed I did not know.

I, who had aspired to broad, but detailed knowledge of my field, to the esoterica of cross- currency swaps, lookback options, and Rembrandt bonds, to the history of the European Monetary System and the politics of the IMF, could not make delivery of the first name, much less phone number, marital status, and investment habits of this elusive siren who enticed passing readers to direct their course toward the Scylla and Charybdis of divergence indicators and exchange for physicals. No, I thought later, after the departure of my friend and only a small taste of Jameson, as I studied the once familiar, but now increasingly mysterious photograph, this lady does not merely grace the cover, she does so with faith and long- suffering, bearing the good news to those fallen from the law, that they may be fructified in good works, and it would behoove one to girt loins, shod feet, grasp sword, and set forth to make known her mystery.

"We had a general cut-back, and she wasn't considered essential personnel," relayed a voice from the swap sales group. "You're saying she's gone," I deduced. "Gone, departed, flown away, swapped out for a Korean programmer to work on back office." She was lost but her name, Helena Maria Rachael Cirius, was found. What kind of name was that? I wondered, thinking Helena could be Greek; Maria, Spanish; Rachael, Jewish or Southern; and Cirius, well, are you serious? Clearly, not much was to be learned in the genealogical realm, there being, after all, certain men and women who made professional careers out of naming babies in an excessively creative and Gothicly ornate fashion; and, at any rate, the vision of Greek captives carried into Spain with the Moslem invasion, who had then married among Sephardic Jews, the offspring of which became marranos in the inquisitional persecution of 1492, and years afterward set off for New Spain, their ships guided by the dog-star Sirius, was too improbable to be given serious consideration. On the other hand, there was only one Cirius, HMR, listed in the White Pages, which prompted a quick call to the accompanying number, and yielded the annoying and disappointing information, delivered in an acoustically offensive voice, that such did not exist in this area code, which left only an intriguing, if disquieting, street address in the East Village. That she had moved was a possibility more likely than a simple, but fatal, fatigue of phone calls, or peremptory action on the part of New York Telephone, so it appeared the remaining, necessarily corporeal, course was to conduct personal interviews among those undoubted Vandals and Visigoths, whom the naive and excessively polite often grouped under the more affectionate euphemism, Neighbors.

A week later, having put my affairs in order and arranged for time off work, I made the long trek down Second Avenue to the East Village. In other rare forays into the forbidden zone, I had found the relentless energy and the hideous but somehow grotesquely magnetic caricature of ordinary life as terrifying as the stench of death and as invigorating as the smell of moist pudenda. On this occasion, however, a restless coolness was in the streets, an icy intimidation and sense of foreboding which melted off the metal bars surrounding Tompkins Park and flowed out into the streets to be picked up and spread by passing automobiles.

She had lived on Avenue B: a boundary, a border, a frontier, which, were it to separate Texas and Mexico, would be termed el poso del mundo, but in the present case was, perhaps, more properly designated as el mundo de los posos. The gentleman drinking out of the brown paper sack was already tilting beyond the zenith of gravity's rainbow, and it was only coincidence that he fell forward on his face, muttering, "My name is Snake, stay outa my way, I'll bite you good," as I approached the siren's erstwhile apartment entrance. Carefully watching my ankles, I looked over the somewhat legible names posted beside the rusty metal door. Helena Maria was not among them, and after pushing each of the four buzzers, one by one, to no observable effect, and making a careful survey of the customs of the block, I entered a nearby convenience store, purchased a can of Budweiser, and sat down against a wall which proclaimed It's not over hasta el finito to await promising building traffic.

"No biting," I admonished Snake, who had decided to join me in my repose, and he looked at me scornfully, if blearily, and waved his arm toward the street, intoning, "Those that be bitten be dead," after which there was little need for further conversation. Daylight was rolling into shadows before a scurrying figure, a waif of a girl toting knapsack and rolled poster made a sudden darting assault on the door with a shiny key.

"Excuse me," I said, springing up, "I'm an acquaintance of the fair Helena Maria Rachael Cirius, and I was wondering if she had perhaps changed her domicile, and if you knew her, or could tell me where she had gone."

"Yeah, I knew her and she moved. Try the Mars Bar," she said, slamming the door behind her. "The Mars Bar?" I asked Snake. "Ain't no Milky Way," he observed unhelpfully. Well, what you seek, you find, was a law of the universe I often relied upon in the course of research, knowing that the seriousness of intent caused books containing relevant information to fall off library shelves into one's path, and total strangers to converse on helpful topics at adjoining restaurant tables; so it was that over the next three or four days (it is difficult to be precise), during which I afforded myself the musical luxury of every selection on the Mars Bar jukebox, I also traversed the streets of the East Village, beginning at 14th and Fourth Avenue, working my way down to Avenue B, then back up 13th Street to Fourth, and so on to 1st Street, a process that terminated at the Mars Bar, whereupon I would return along Bowery and Fourth to start the process all over again, expecting at any moment she would come blasting out of a doorway, bearing, perhaps in a plain brown wrapper, perhaps in an autumnal kaleidoscope, an itemized index to the secrets of the universe.

Sometimes in this or that place, upon inquiry as to occupation, I would explain that as Odysseus sought the Golden Fleece, so did I seek the most beguiling of the Helens, and I would produce the book with her picture from the rucksack, and expound on her virtues while the inquirer flipped through the text, read the title, and eyed my torn jeans and faded T-shirt, and often, with surprising humanity, bought me a drink and attempted to direct my attention to some other maiden across the room, or to reassure me the book would bring a dollar down at the flea market. Hours flowed into days, days into nights, and nights into almost places where each waitress was almost an actress, and each bartender almost a poet or a composer. As is often the case, the end was contained in the beginning, for I finally found her in the wee hours of the morning as I wearily collapsed onto a Mars Bar stool next to the Neo- Thulite, the Sound Man, and the Chef, as well as others with whom I had not broken brew.

And there she was, sipping cranberry juice and vodka.

"This is you," I said, showing her the girl on the cover. "No, that's me," she replied, pointing to the skull on the wall with the mousetrap nailed to its forehead. "I've just lost my job and my boyfriend, in that order."

Some of the fatigue departed in a burst of Schadenfreude. "How very tragic," I said. "About the job, I mean."

She looked me over. "Where did you get this?"

"I am the author."

"And I'm the mother of God," she responded in a tone that did not incline one to dispute it.

I tried a change of tack. "It's okay. I would never judge a cover girl by her book," I said.

"I was definitely a gypsy in yaksha-yuppie clothing."

A moment of silence while Lou Reed invited us to take a walk on the wild side.

"What are we to do, now that we have discovered low finance?" I asked. "Is this the bar at the end of the universe? The new world order? Skull and bones and applied principles of rat psychology?"

"The gift of penetrating vision is denied to the uninitiated," she responded. "It is first necessary to undergo symbolic death and resurrection, to cast off the old creature, and to make room for the new."

"Another drink?"

"I had in mind something more dramatic, like an auto-da-fe of my image and your alleged oeuvre."

We walked hand-in-hand to 5th Street, to her walk- up apartment, where we opened a bottle of wine, and carefully laid the book on a cross-thatch of phosphorous matches in a baking tin. We shared a glass, and uttered silent prayers, and ignited one corner.

The flames hovered around the edges of the book, until the outer pages began to curl and roll up one by one, slowly turning to ashes like years of the past decade. I was burning up inside, and removed my clothes and lay on the futon, the sweat running off my forehead and shoulders and thighs.

And we stayed like that, for a while, staring into the dying flames, while the shadows crept back around us, and the late-night chill reentered the air, and the passing footsteps became the muffled sound of leaves scattered by the wind. And then she stood to remove her own clothing, and to sigh, and to shake out her hair.

"As of yet there's no sign of life," she said, listlessly straddling the corpse. And I realized, then, that I had failed to detect the slow fading of her visage.


from The Laissez Faire City Times, November 1997