SWELTERING (short story)

SWELTERING
By
Timothy Herrick

Copyright 2018 held by author.

 

 

The only point of coming out tonight was her hope that not being alone might stop the gnawing. Not until she was close enough to see everyone through the illuminated windows of the bar did she realize being here would only do the opposite. Nothing worse than a bad idea that seemed like a great idea up until the very last possible moment.

The heart doesn’t break like a wooden plank, neatly splitting in two. The heart is pottery, narrow fissures spread and widen until they shatter. Your entire being fragments. Any thought that might make you feel better or at least sufficiently pleasant enough to endure remains too far away to see or touch.

No summer beach house week in the Hamptons or a weekend on Adderall and edibles with the lawyer couple in Martha’s Vineyard this year. Gone were the Sunday mornings of unhurried lust followed by long walks or a drive down the shore. This summer was now just work and grieving the loss of love in her life. No sketching, no painting. The graphic design gigs were constant, she had plenty of paying work. Only one or two days a week on the PATH to NYC, otherwise she stayed home and stared at the phone or fiddled with layouts on the laptop and the few times she went out it was to get drunk in neighborhood dives.

Three years of companionship and coupledom now history.

When she wasn’t recalling how Natalia’s body felt or their shared experiences of city restaurants and bars, gallery openings, movies, theater and museums… vacations… she was remembering that last night. The night of The Talk. They hadn’t seen each other for more than a week. Another Friday night was approaching. Lenora texted suggestions about going to a new gallery in the east village and a new Vietnamese/Sushi restaurant that somebody recommended. Natalia merely responded let’s just have a quiet night, I’ll come to Jersey City. We need to talk.

The memories constantly spinning in her mind always circled back to the night of The Talk. Nothing in Natalia’s eyes reciprocated. Whatever once did reflect back affection was replaced by cold indifference as Natalia repeated the irrefutable: she was pregnant, had been in love with this man for months now and was sick of lying to you and him. What they had was fun but we both know it was not a forever thing. I am not gay, I do not love you anymore and the only thing you love Lenora is your art and that was a choice you made long before you met me.

***

Theorem was a bar with an art gallery, the commercial space in one of the older buildings on Newark Avenue. The building dated back to the mid-20th century and the space was once a general store then an eye doctor than a 99 cents store and now an art bar. For decades these blocks were mainly stores and shops, anchored by a PATH station, the subway that linked New Jersey to Manhattan. City planners declared this thoroughfare Restaurant Row. As leases ran out the shops closed and after several months of renovations, they reopened as a restaurant and bar. The street was in transition – two discount stores, a Korean produce store here, a pharmacy there – remained from the ghetto phase that followed the 20th century white flight phase – other spaces were either dark, waiting construction or undergoing construction – or were bright restaurants all built less than five years ago, three opened since March alone.

Vehicular traffic was no longer permitted on the blocks leading directly to the subway station. The city rechristened the street a pedestrian plaza, but the mix of glowing new bars and unlit former storefronts unevenly illuminated this car-free public space.

Once upon a time – when lines of cars still bottlenecked or were doubled park or carefully squeezed into prized spots where drivers fed the meter, 15 minutes per quarter – Theorem was new, the only neighborhood bar not  populated by mostly men and women who had grown old in this city – they drank at dim dives whose tiny windows displayed shamrocks and buzzing neon beer signs and Yankee and Giant pennants adorned plywood walls and ESPN was always on at least one television. They could be fun, the drinks cheap, but their time had passed and their demise inevitable. Theorem catered to the newcomers, most of whom were artists. Now all the new bars catered to the newcomers – fewer of whom were artists because fewer artists could afford the rising rents – and those men and women who had been living here for decades worried how many more drinks they could enjoy in the familiar comfort of their reliable neighborhood tavern before the 21st century eliminated even that mundane diversion.

Theorem may still be rightly known as the center of the Jersey City arts scene, but was now just one more place to drink on restaurant row. The new bars had even hipper food and more handcrafted brews on tap, live music, even dancing. They were vastly more popular than Theorem, which catered to their loyal artistic niche – when they are in one place like tonight they didn’t seem like a minority – the fact though was that there were more artists leaving than joining the most recent surges of newcomers. Residents arriving back from their day jobs in Manhattan now navigated swelling hordes of twenty-somethings flocking to what long had been known by realtors, developers and the press as the next Williamsburg.

Jersey City still had lower rents for more space than New York City, initially the reason Lenora like hundreds of artists fled here from across the river. Her fellowship had ended at PACE, the owner of the Green Point sublet was returning from Japan. She already had friends in Jersey City and she easily found an apartment with enough space for a studio. Even though her work had been selling in Chelsea, there were new art galleries in Jersey City and places like Theorem where a scene coalesced.

She submitted a few older, MFA pieces to some group shows and they sold and two years ago the city commissioned her to paint mural near the Holland Tunnel. Success on both sides of the river, the difference being she ran into the Jersey City buyers at Theorem openings or while shopping at Key Food while the Chelsea buyers were mainly anonymous foreigners and the gallery owner promised after two more sales he would organize a solo-show that would travel to London, Paris and Oslo. Last week he emailed her about a Berlin gallery “showing interest” in her portfolio.

Her paintings were based on her sketches of people and landscapes. She was uniquely adept at both the human body and scenes of nature. She filled dozens of notepads with what she called studies. She remembered what she drew. Sometimes these memories appeared in her dreams. When she saw enough connections between specific studies of mini-landscapes and human forms, she painted on a canvas what she remembered. How the studies blended decided the colors. She used vivid, radiant tones the most, transforming what might seem familiar into a hyper facsimile of reality. Her distinctive palate and instinct for juxtaposition engaged the viewer who was never sure what was the background and what was the insert.

She wanted the usual to be unknowable. The relationship with Natalia gave her a needed stability, allowing her imagination to visualize the hidden mystery that can only be measured by the lines, shadows, and light of the ordinary. Life needed love to have meaning and she needed meaning so she could worry not about life, but only about the final canvases. Love let her see those paintings. The loss of that love meant life was meaningless and if life was meaningless so were the images that eddy and flow sometimes so intensely she had to curl into a fetal position until she could focus enough to pick up the brush and set some of them free. Nothing to think of now except incessant memories of Natalia, black and white footage, flickering bleak and gray, dank shadows instead of rainbows.

She considered submitting for this Theorem show – Sweltering. But The Talk came the week of the submission deadline. Then nothing mattered. She didn’t exactly swear never to show in an art bar again, but she had contemplated such a decision. She didn’t submit right away when the call for art was first posted on Facebook because seeing the call for art on Facebook angered her. Shirley had been to the studio, knew her work, especially the older unsold paintings cluttering up the apartment. Two or three would be perfect for a summer-themed group show and if Shirley reached out, Lenora would have probably said yes. The career shift to no longer showing locally could always be postponed. The truth was she resented that this curator hadn’t acknowledged her talent and achievement by personally asking her to submit work before a call went public.

***

Lenora halted, nearly overwhelmed with anxiety. She was both fearful and appalled by the notion of venturing alone into the bar then chatting in what through the window looked like an overstuffed aquarium. She hated the pettiness of her thoughts about Shirley. Natalia breaking up with her – the first time in Lenora’s sex life that ending a relationship was not Lenora’s idea – had put her in this seemingly permanent depression and feeling slighted by the curator increased her unbearable sensitivity. If she turned around and walked away now, she could escape her own pettiness, which wasn’t just about Shirley. She couldn’t remember the last time she went to any art opening without Natalia and everybody inside Theorem either knew what happened between them or would ask where she was. The thought of explaining it again and again suddenly made the humidity twice as oppressive.

“You didn’t answer my last text.” Karen surprised her when she touched her arm, standing in front of the boarded up building next to the bar. She was smoking peach-flavored liquid tobacco from an ivory colored vaping pen. The dwindling light in the sky formed jagged shadows up and down the plaza. Broken darkness created only partial visibility in between the glowing marquees and neon windows.

Lenora hadn’t noticed Karen until she felt her hand. Karen wore a familiar blue summer dress, suitable for the office where she spent the day talking on the phone and either responding to emails or sending new emails. She had a piece in the show, an illustration that reproduced a black & white photograph of bathers at Sea Side Heights. Lenora liked her, they hung out often, talked on the phone. They were real friends, not just Facebook friends. Karen said she was bisexual but Lenora knew she really preferred men, just as she knew Karen was lonely and had more feelings for Lenora than Lenora had for her but Karen’s feelings had more to do with a need to escape loneliness than genuine sexual urgency.

“I clicked going on Facebook.”

“If that meant anything I’d have five hundred and seventy three friends here.”

“I don’t know if I can take this crowd tonight.”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Why?”

“You were not a happy drunk last week.”

“I hate embarrassing myself.”

“We’ve all been there.”

“I’m fine.”

She was… fine… steady, able. She hadn’t cried in almost a day and even then nowhere near the convulsive sobs vodka emancipated. She wasn’t empty and the lonely feeling was not the overwhelming uselessness she felt as a child listening to her parents argue, unwavering in her prepubescent certainty that she alone turned their love into hate. She remembered lying sleepless, relying on the unreliable protection of her stuffed menagerie against her bedroom’s dense and layered shadows, quiet shudders rippling through her rigid body, long tears dripping down her face, insistent contemplations of nonexistence relentlessly pounding. She told herself that she didn’t feel that way now. Not even close.

Karen let go and stepped forward, nearly in reach of the door. She noticed Lenora was motionless, grimacing with apprehension. She held the door open so the man and woman behind them could enter then stepped back.

“I’m just not feeling it, talking to everybody.”

“Nobody buys art in the summer. Let me say good bye, I can finish my drink and you can have one wine and we can go eat somewhere, that Italian street fair is only a few blocks away.”

“That sounds preferable… let’s go now.”

“Ten minutes tops.”

She let herself be hauled inside. Everyone here was a friend too, and to varying degrees, friendly… followed each other on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter though no one seemed interested in Twitter anymore. Familiar faces, expected faces… artists and friends of artists… mutual attendees at openings … the local galleries and art bars… or other bars or parties. Everyone was encouraging, everything was awesome. When they saw Lenora, glances, nods, smiles, waves swept across the crowd who were either at the chrome bar or in huddles that formed near the walls, by the works of art. These tiny pauses of recognition happened one after another, but no conversations were interrupted. Lenora kept smiling long after she knew she was no longer believably faking her glad to be here, glad to see you too expression.

Karen went over to a cluster near her painting and Lenora sighed with sudden relief when she noticed an empty stool at the bar. Molly the bartender had seen her, gestured that the seat was untaken. She wore a sleeveless black t-shirt, colorful tattoos of green leaves and blue and red petals ran up her plump arms. They grasped hands and leaned across the counter and kissed both sides of their faces European style. Her dread decreased. Molly possessed a razor sharp memory but like any of the best bartenders, when she said what she knew it felt like your mind was being read and your needs anticipated.

“Vodka and tonic.” She paused. “Extra lime.”

Lenora pressed her fingers and palms together as if in prayer and nodded with exaggerated appreciation. “I like it limey.”

“You got it.”

The middle-aged man next to her wore a faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, the classic lips and tongue logo. He straightened his back when he looked up from his phone and said her name. She smiled at him. “Hudson Chronicle.”

“Sam Murphy.”

“Sam… yes… sorry… how you doing. The Chronicle’s covering Sweltering?”

“Maybe not a full story, I want to go down the shore sometime this summer.”

“I hear that.”

“Are you in the show?”

“No.”

“Any new murals?”

She shook her head. Sam had written an article about the mural. Her favorite part was being interviewed. No matter how helpful the encouragement, college instructors and art teachers had a financial incentive to evade the truth and fellow artists and friends were always positive no matter what they might truly think. Her solo shows had not been reviewed. The interview was objective acknowledgement that her work mattered, someone was taking it seriously enough to ask questions about it, write down her answers then publish an article based on what she said for strangers to read. She first felt nervous answering questions, then she seemed unable to stop talking until all her points were made and all her thoughts expressed. Afterwards she worried about what she said and was unexpectedly thrilled when she read the article.

Natalia encouraged her to submit a proposal and sketch to the municipal mural program. Just expand your scale. Canvas or building, what’s the difference? Her thematic concept was memory. She interspersed lush, leafy trees and ivy draped cliffs with blurry faces behind windows. Were we inside the buildings remembering our natural past or were we in nature feeling homesick for our city homes? The organizers liked how that sounded, accepted the proposal and assigned her a building. The city supplied all the paint and materials and the cherry picker – a hydraulic crane that was easy to operate. She covered the entire west façade of a former warehouse converted into a new apartment complex with what she saw in her head.

A local internet TV station filmed her painting, and Natalia said the paint splattered on her clothes and face looked hot on camera. But it was the interview without a camera recording, being asked questions by this older gentleman who first began writing about the city around the time Lenora was born that meant the most. His article on her mural ensured some public record of the artist and her creativity that went into that work was documented for all time, at least until civilization collapses to such an extent that every archive was destroyed.

Molly placed the drink down and Lenora said not to run a tab and paid for the drink right away because even though she felt more comfortable now than outside, leaving soon was still the goal.

Sparkling lime doused her tongue. More dread instantly gone. “What do you think of the show?”

Sam’s thumb and index finger stroked his graying light-brown mustache. “Shirley always picks art that works best as Art Bar art.”

“She knows her space.”

“It’s a virtue.”

“As least your paper is covering art, so many are closing down and few are writing about the arts at all.”

“I’ll run a picture online at least, Facebook and Instagram. Local politics and high school sports are what they are stuck on because that’s the readership they’ve always sold ads on. Art is part of the city like never before. It doesn’t just happen over there, across the river. It is here on the Jersey side and people want to know about it. It’s also fun to write about so I am pushing as much as I can, but the publisher still can’t figure out a way to monetize the creative class readership.”

“Artists are the creative class?”

“More the poor tip of a vaster iceberg of a new generation. Technology has made nearly everyone part of the creative class so they move to cities and partying with artists at openings is fun.”

The glass was tall, contoured like tree bark, bubbles ascending and popping around three slices of lime, floating green crescents among the stylishly large cubes. “Is that part of your beat too, the parties.”

“We just started an online blog, exclusively on the art and theater scene… plus music and films. We’ve actually talked about doing gossip, a page six. You’re local celebrities at the very least.”

She really wanted to only concentrate on the drink, settle in and let the environment become pleasing. He rattled on about this new website. He used the words bells and whistles to describe a registration feature that would help artists network. The only thing more boring than hearing someone her age rave about some new website was when somebody older waxed poetical about interactivity. Her comprehension ability quickly waned, she could barely distinguish his syllables as words. She politely nodded, sucking chilly lime effervescence liquid through the thick straw. He paused, the silence between them now awkward as he realized she wasn’t listening and she realized he had asked her a question and was waiting a reply.

She cupped her ear, complained that the music was too loud and said excuse me and he repeated himself. She had switched from straw to drinking from the glass and had to quickly swallow in order to avoid spitting out lime infused vodka when it dawned on her that she distinctly heard him ask about the woman who was with her at the mural site interview. “Her name was Natalia wasn’t it?”

It only felt like twelve and a half hours of trembling silence when twenty seconds later Karen grabbed her elbow and whispered so only Lenora could hear. “We must go… now.”

***

Karen desperately tried to conceal her anxiety as she gestured with the slightest twitch of her head towards a couple lingering near a painting. Lenora sighed when she recognized Karen’s ex, Justin. They had broken up a little more than a year ago, his idea. Karen talked about him often, rarely kindly. Lenora didn’t particularly like him and until now only hated him out of loyalty to a friend and respect for her pain. But this woman he was with made that resentment less qualified… what was her name again? Kendra or Candice … cropped cherry red hair and immense, hot breasts but she was fireplug height, more than a foot shorter than Justin who was not a tall man. Lenora found her shallow and boring, and it didn’t help her cause that Lenora had an attraction to her – why not? – obviously uninhibited, effortlessly sensual – but her body was just a little too out of balance, slightly exaggerated, weird. What disturbed Lenora about her attraction to Kendra or Candice was knowing that the erotic could also be grotesque. At some point her curiosity became undistinguishable from repulsion.

Last year she showed her charcoals and inks in this café that made sour espresso and served soggy vegan sandwiches. Mostly nudes, some animals, pets – cats and dogs – high school student-level quality… her lines and perspective were so dull-witted and unimaginative Lenora could barely look at the sketches without wincing. They never hung out or even traded anything more than polite pleasantries much less sustain something close to resembling a conversation. Facebook friends, of course. But one of those Facebook friends from the neighborhood, parts of circles Lenora knew people in but rarely circulated within. They passed each other on the sidewalk or grocery store aisle without any acknowledgement whatsoever, looking away or at their phone just in case one of them decided to say hello so that an innocently averted gaze could support a plausible I didn’t see you excuse. Neither felt any personal interest or social obligation that would compel crossing the friendship border.

Kendra or Candice posted two or three times a day, never an original thought, mainly sharing two categories of posts  – positive, upbeat notions – “be the best you that you can be today” – or unimaginably cute animal clips. Barely a week after Lenora accepted her Facebook friendship request, Lenora selected the option to hide her posts but not defriend. What did she post that offended her sensibilities to cause the get out of my feed click? She suddenly remembered calico kittens playing with a baby otter. The fact that she also remembered first laughing at the clip now filled her with an irritating shame. That memory was as annoying as this woman now being here with Justin and causing Karen to be barely able to suppress being freaked out.

“I can’t stay with him here.”

The intensity of Karen’s locked stare startled her, but Lenora instantly recognized opportunity.

“Both of them deserve our hatred.” She drained her glass with one gulp. “Time to book my sister.”

***

No goodbyes to anybody as they meandered towards then rushed through the door, shedding all air conditioning, wading through curtains of heat. An intensely humid Northern New Jersey summer night – hotter now than it was at noon – breezeless oxygen thick as phlegm. No matter how many summers, you never get used to it.

They picked up the pace, fleeing place, people and angst. They turned right at the first side street, away from the signage and streetlamp glare and clusters of noisy young bar hoppers. Nowhere to gather now, just homes and parallel-parked cars and sidewalks and older trees. The leaves and branches sagged with humidity, the shadowy dimness induced a relieving hush.

Only one block away and now all residential, smaller apartment buildings and three-story homes whose yards – barely a patch compared to the suburbs – had well-tended if miniature lawns between the stoop and the sidewalk. Theorem felt ten miles behind and ten years ago.

She heard the music before they reached the church, a cluster of buildings that encompassed an entire block. The convent and grammar school had been turned into senior citizen housing more than 20 years ago, but the house of worship still held masses and services like it had been doing since 1873 if the sign was to be believed. The brass steeple glimmered in the night. Lenora wondered why the crucifix at its pinnacle was teal and faded, yet the metallic upside-down cone was shiny and almost orange.

Red, green and white paper lanterns dangled from the wires that crisscrossed the street from the telephone poles. Parents and children stood at the brightly illuminated games of chance – a spinning wheel, mounted water pistols that shot into the open mouth of a scary party clown, refrigerator white face. Behind the counters, a wall of shelves displayed stuffed characters from popular animated movies, arranged in a hierarchy from small to large with the biggest as well as hardest to win on top. The flashing marquee lights seemed all pulsing ambers and candy reds, dayglow greens, cobalt blues.

The song changed, now definitely Sinatra. The voice was loud and not un-endearing but certainly not the same one she knew.  An obese man in a sweat-soaked tuxedo sang into a mike, accompanied by an equally chubby but only slightly younger keyboard player wearing a rhinestone studded t-shirt and massive black pompadour. Peopled sang along, pointed their phones and captured the moment. A few couples even danced. It mattered not this wasn’t the Copa and there wasn’t a 15-piece orchestra seated behind him and his tuxedo was more wilted than the carnation in its lapel. He sang with gusto, encouraged and acknowledged the mutual love for this music from another century.

Lenora turned to Karen but she was not there, could not be seen. Lenora walked back towards the corner where she finally spotted her, sucking on her vape, one hand covering her eyes.

“I thought I lost you… Karen, are you crying.”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about Justin and it’s now like my throat is choked with sludge.”

They embraced, all sweat and tears. “We’re a couple of heartbroken spinsters tonight.”

“Natalia hated to leave New York. You’re lucky. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“She’s far from out of mind believe me.”

“I loved him, he made me happy. I even thought about having his kid.”

“Now you’re going too far. I may puke.”

“I’m serious. Tonight proved he’s not staying in Bayonne. I can barely afford to live much less move. I’m going to have to see him with that stacked dimwit at openings and parties. Art was my safe space. That’s my community, not his. I’m the artist.”

“If those two mutants spawn I’m blaming you for lowering the IQ of the next generation.” Lenora tugged a reluctant arm. “I want to hear the Sinatra imitator.”

“The Sicilian Crooner, he’s always here.” Karen sniffled away her final sobs. “I can’t believe you’ve never been to the Italian Fair before. My father took me when I was a kid, his father used to take him when he was a kid.”

“You grew up in Jersey City?”

“North Arlington. My grandparents grew up here, every Sunday my father’s family drove to Jersey City to visit their parents and every summer he brought us to here to the street fair. It was a tradition. We kept coming here long after any family that was in Jersey City had either died or moved away. For his entire life, my father paid tribute to his father’s memory of his father’s Jersey City’s childhood. The family he grew up hearing about succeeded where the family he started, our family, didn’t.”

“I forgot you’re a Jersey girl.”

She shook a fist. “Representing.”

The Sicilian Crooner ended with a rousing That’s Amore! that half the crowd sang along with before they applauded and cheered.

“We need wine,” said Lenora.

“Agreed!”

“And food. We need wine and food. I’m famished. Sausage! I can smell the peppers and onions.”

“I thought you were a semi-pescetarian vegan.”

“When the pork calls I heed.”

“I know what you mean. I don’t miss the thick steaks or fried chicken, but every once in a while I need a BLT.”

“I hope you have one.”

“Depends.”

“I never do craving denial. I always surrender, I always give in. I do not believe anything exists just to be ignored. I am the same way with painting ideas.”

“Ideas don’t go right to my belly.”

“Summer’s almost gone. Like it or not, we have to accept what we have now as this year’s beach body. No sausage and pepper hero is going to change that fact.” Her mood kept improving. She grasped Karen’s hand with comic flourish and authentic affection. “Calories beckon my sister. Who cares if the eating and drinking was caused by a broken heart or is to forget a broken heart and let us… consume.”

***

Lenora felt she knew no one yet everyone in the throngs streaming and swirling between the stands selling mainly Italian food as well as wine and booze. Lines were no more than three or four deep, people cheerfully gabbed with each other as they waited on line or walked away from the line with something to eat or drink or towards a new stand to buy something else to eat or drink. The range of ages – and races – was far more diverse than any crowd at Theorem. No one to nod at, no judgements or recollections, just genuine grins and a polite, apologetic excuse me when someone needed to pass by or accidently brushed against her. They were fellow residents in her daily world, familiar but nameless faces, other extras in each other’s movies.

The evening light splintered through the haze of steamy moisture in the warm air. They drank red wine from plastic cups and ate thick sausages, fatty and phallic in soft long rolls under a wig of glistening peppers and onions. Delicious enough to cause involuntarily eye rolling and agreement that this was just what they needed, the best sausage ever. Then it was chilled white wine and zeppoles – dough fried deep enough to turn a golden brown and covered in powdered sugar.

After eating her second zeppole, Karen kissed the tasty sweetness from her fingers. “If I ever get back to the gym I will have to spend a week on the treadmill just for tonight… but it’s so worth it.”

“All this celebrates summer. Embodies Summer.”

They were seated on the end of a long wooden table freshly painted white. Lenora aimlessly pulled a piece off the zeppole, then ripped that piece in half and watched the steam rise from the break. Karen leaned the side of her head against her palm. “I loved coming here as a kid.”

“Sweltering – even the name is stupid, not stupid… nasty… why insult summer? Why focus on suffering?”

“A seasonal theme has commercial appeal.”

“Even her irony is blatant.”

“Shirley has run out of ideas, that’s true.”

“Your piece is strong but the show is bland.”

“Bland… you said the exact same thing about her last show.”

“Was I right?”

Karen nodded, made a face. “She keeps whining about the competition.”

“Those Jersey City galleries get less people than any Theorem opening and the wine they serve is free.”

“From the new bars. She’s lost business, bar business. Art just isn’t the draw it used to be. There’s so many other places to drink and everybody wants to at least try them. Less loyalty, more competition. She has fewer regulars these days to augment her artist following.”

“In other words, her only following is artists.”

“It’s a pretty small pond.”

“We only go there because we’re artists.”

“Sweltering sounds sexy. She needs to sell more drinks to stay open. She needs to attract new crowds. She needs to grow beyond her regulars.”

“I didn’t see any one new there.”

“Except Justin.”

“Ghosts don’t count.”

“They don’t buy either.” Lenora paused to make sure she did hear Karen say a Justin-related joke, then laughed out loud and the two high-fived. “She’s not getting the same level of artists to show their work there. I heard that what she showed for Sweltering was every piece that was submitted.”

“That’s not curating that’s inventorying.”

“She’s just burned out.”

“I’m sorry about that, but she needs new energy. My art will not be responsible for whether or not she’s meeting her apple martini sales quota.”

“Not everybody can be so lucky to sell in New York.”

“I like to think it’s more than luck but luck is definitely a major part.”

“You’re smart… that’s why you’re smart about where you show and who represents you. I was just being sarcastic. I didn’t mean to sound shitty.”

“No worries, my sister. This night’s been fucked up but I’m having fun now.”

“It’s so friggin hot though…”

“I like it, the heat tonight, right now. It’s real, you know. The way earth here now is. Summer has its own very particular look.”

“Fertile.”

“That there. Yes. I can see peasants in Italy having these festivals hundreds of years ago. Just before the harvest, thanking the earth, the earth mother and goddess for the bounty from their growing season.”

“Actually, it’s the Virgin Mary… Jesus’s mommy.”

“Yes, I know who you meant. I forgot a Roman Catholic Church is running this shindig. Before Christianity, it was the earth goddess. Most of the rituals and saints and what not are based on ancient practices. They stole goddess images to make your Mary. In the dark ages, not the middle ages.”

“That’s before the middle ages.”

“Right. The popes after the iconography of Blessed Mary’s and angels and saints had been established, had most of the original images from the ancient world destroyed. Artists just copied the copies and on and on. The Christian copied the pagan but then other artists copied the Christian copy because the originals were gone. What we now think of as the first is not original at all. The peasants didn’t care who they were worshiping. What they knew was the harvest kept their village alive and the source of that life was a woman.”

“Let’s go back to the ancient originals then. Churches are creepy, thank God my parents were lapsed. Seeing all this again, the fair and this street brings back memories. I hate religion but I’m carrying on the zeppole family tradition and at least it’s a tradition.”

“When Natalia and I went to Spain two summers ago we drove around the countryside and went to a street fair in this village and it was a lot like this, some saint if I remember. There were only a few other tourists too. Most everyone lived there. Natalia raved about how genuine and real the villagers were, pure peasant stock. She would never appreciate the same things about the people in New Jersey or America even, doing the same thing their families had been doing for centuries just because it was here, thus below her European standard for what’s cool. Working people and their families in Europe are quaint and real, here they’re just low class yahoos. She never cared about the tradition or the meaning summer holds for people who come together every year to feast. That village holiday in Spain was nothing more than something to gloat about to her rich friends when she came home.”

“I always found her a real snoot. I hate snobs. I didn’t want to tell you this but I think Natalia never cared about your art.”

Lenora wiped her eyes with a napkin. “I miss her but I’ll tell you what, some of her stuff I sure don’t miss.”

***

He wore metal frame glasses and a Yankees cap and held a children’s sandbox bucket against his stomach. Cash and red tickets were in the bucket. He had thick black hair and bristly five o’clock shadow. “Excuse me, would either of you two ladies want to buy 50/50 raffle tickets.”

Lenora asked “what is 50/50?”

“Half the money you get, half the money goes to the church,” he said. “The next drawing is the last drawing tonight.”

“What does half the money mean?”

He was amused though puzzled someone needed to ask. He held up the roll of red tickets. “From the sale of these. Cash only!”

“It’s a raffle,” said Karen.

“50/50’s been real popular this year,” he said. “The last one is always the biggest of the night and there’s still a lot of people. We ran out of rice balls.”

“You have to excuse my friend. She’s never been to the Italian fair before.”

“How long have you lived in Jersey City?” he asked Lenora.

“I got her to come,” said Karen. “I come every year.”

Lenora shrugged. “How about you?”

“I was baptized in this church. My parents were married there and my father was baptized there too. I lived here all my life.”

“I think my grandparents went to church here. Did you know the Bustamante’s?”

“My mom might. I don’t know from names. Seemed more than half the families that used to be here moved to the suburbs. Now their grandchildren are moving back and they’re bringing all their friends.”

“Oh my God, you know my life.”

“I’ve seen the city change in the few years I’ve been here,” said Lenora. “I could only imagine all the changes you’ve seen.”

“The world is change, life is change. What hasn’t changed? With all the condos being constructed, the rate of influx has certainly increased, but new people moving into Jersey City, that’s always been. Old people leave, new people move in. Parking is crazy, but new faces are good to see. They may not go to the Assumption Novena, but at least some come to the feast.”

“I’m loving your feast,” said Lenora. “What did you say about assuming something?”

Karen giggled. “I told you it was the feast of the Blessed Mother.”

“The Assumption, yes… but novena means nine. There’s nine days of consecutive prayers. The special masses that lead up to the feast day. The Assumption Novena.”

“Pray then feast,” said Karen. “You’re very old school.”

“Nothing more old school than Catholic school. But if you’re into it, the fair is very rewarding. We are all volunteers who work here.”

“Praying to the goddess is as much a part of the harvest as the celebration feast,” said Lenora. “Mary is the goddess figure… I didn’t mean any insult.”

“I get what you meant. The Assumption is a very Catholic idea. The mother of Jesus was so free of sin when she died her body was assumed into heaven. I don’t know of any myth that is anything like that. Fall is when they celebrate the harvest anyway. But who knows, maybe there’s something about it being in the summer that pagans originated and when they were converted and just carried it over to Christianity, like Christmas Trees and Easter Eggs. I should get back to work, do you want any tickets?”

“It couldn’t be an Assumption Novena without a 50/50 now could it? I’m Lenora and this is Karen, What is your name.”

“Sal.”

Tickets were one for two, three for five and they each bought $5 and immediately made a pact to split whatever they won.

“Good luck ladies.”

“Great talking with you Sal,” said Lenora.

“I got an uncle with that exact same accent.”

“Did I sound obnoxious when I was talking about Mary and goddesses?”

“Not at all, he seemed impressed that you at least had an interest.”

“I like the whole energy of the summer and Mother Mary.”

“I went to church a few times when I was a kid, wasn’t for me at all.”

“Mary is so ethereal in her depictions.”

“I like the images, but religion is all about control by shame… free of sin.”

“Her expression is so serene. That’s from the goddess, for sure. She has an inner glow, like an apparition.”

“She was an apparition. Even I know that. You know… Lourdes, Guadalupe. Different countries, different robes. The faithful believe that was her appearing to us from Heaven. You’re right though, her face is always serene.”

Lenora did a Sal impression. “Assumed into heaven.”

“She comes back to prove that there is a Heaven. Mary is cool, the only cool thing really about the church. The rest of it has no appeal. If Christianity was all about proving there is a Heaven than two thousand years of sexual repression should not have been the result.”

***

The middle-aged singer had a tall brunette beehive and wore a glittering, bright red dress, backed up by the Sicilian’s Crooner’s keyboard player. His hair was nearly the same height as hers. They went from Janis Joplin to Lady Gaga. The drum tracks and keyboard riffs sounded corny, but the woman had a decent voice, full and brassy. Lenora and Karen, standing at the periphery of the crowd in front of the stage, sipped what they had declared to be their nightcap – vodka and tonics – and watched people dance or sing along or take pictures of friends and family with their phones.

“I think it’s time you made some money,” the singer coyly teased the audience then pushed for the cheers. “Are you ready for the 50/50!”

After the clamor she said, “I think I’m going to need some help up here. Where is he?”

The Sicilian Crooner lumbered up the side steps, waving at his few adoring fans, outnumbered by the onlookers who joined in welcoming him back. The pair bantered in the yellowish spotlight, killing time so Sal could come to the stage, carrying a larger plastic container. Lenora and Karen yelped and yowled along with everybody else.

“We are all blessed to be here tonight,” said the crooner, accent thick, voice raspy. With a grand, dramatic gesture, he reached into the barrel, retrieved a ticket then read the numbers of the winner.

A woman’s holler smashed the silence. Her upraised arms flailed and she rapidly stamped in the same excited manner as TV game show contestants. She excitedly pranced through the audience to the stage as dozens of phones took aim. She hugged the singers as Sal verified the tickets matched. When he announced that she indeed was the winner of four hundred and thirty-three dollars, her arms wrapped around Sal and she leaned up to kiss his cheek. The crooner held the microphone as she exclaimed, “I love the Italian Fair! I love Jersey City! And I love Our Lady of the Assumption!”

Just as the cheers peaked and began to fade, she grabbed the crooner’s wrist, shoving the microphone back near her mouth. “And thank you Blessed Mother!”

As Sal and the winner cleared the stage, the keyboard issued a recognizable riff. The beehive wobbled, her head bobbing a little too vigorously for the tempo. “Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat.”

The crooner in mid-dance-move responded in his lounge act phrasing. “Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the streets.”

“Sal we were robbed,” said Lenora as Sal passed them.

“There’s always tomorrow,” he laughed, “the fair runs all weekend.”

“Are you saying I’m going to get lucky if I come back?” said Karen.

“We’re all lucky just to be here,” said Sal, friendly, warm, welcoming. When either of them would talk of going to the Italian Fair in the future, they would mention the nice guy named Sal they bought raffle tickets from who talked about the Assumption and Blessed Mother Mary and Heaven.

They finished their drinks, feeling pleasantly buzzed and talked out. Another up-tempo Motown-era song followed. Lenora moved to the sound naturally. She had taken dance classes as a girl. Sometimes she just needed to dance, as if her body became whatever music she was hearing at that moment. Karen started to move as well and soon they were dancing together. Lenora remembered her mother playing the oldies station and saying this was the music I heard when I was your age. Then she noticed Karen looking not just at her, but into her eyes. She wanted to steal a glance then confirm the glance was met.

What Lenora missed most about being with Natalia was that feeling of being wanted, trusting someone enough to act on their mutual attraction by giving and receiving pleasure.

The orgasms provided relief and affirmation of love, the physical act verified emotions. Other proofs that she was worthy were more tangible if less substantial. Shirley didn’t want her art for Sweltering, but Chelsea had now sold her work. How much of Natalia’s desire for her was phony, when did it become phony… not being able to pinpoint that moment had eaten away at her since The Talk. Was that phoniness any different than the art scene jabber and self-promotion and event planning ethos? Nobody wanted to experience the art, share the revelation the artist does when creation strikes. It was all about the hustle.

Can art be both transcendent and a lie? The more phoniness surrounding even great art the more likely art itself is the lie.

The other scenario of course is that she had no talent, much less originality. Everything was worthless because she was worthless. When Natalia said she believed in Lenora’s talent was that just more of her acting?  She said she was sick of lying to her… when did her lies begin and how much did they encompass?

They danced half way through one more song, then drifted away from the fair onto a side street and headed home. They lived at opposite ends of the same neighborhood. Lenora held her hand and called her my sister.  She had no insistent sexual desire for Karen, she just wanted a physical distraction. She may be one of her current closest friends, but she could get annoying. Risking the friendship was nearly a nonissue – it probably wasn’t a risk and if so, who cares. I want what I want.

Karen though had desire for her – and even if it derived from her loneliness – arousal is tempting to exploit. Lenora praised my sister as a kind and wonderful human, a talented artist, a tried and true friend. They reached the corner where they had to part. Lenora’s  gush of admiration brought the expected tear to Karen’s eye. That’s when she acted on her impulse. Lenora pressed her breasts into hers, then placing her hands gently along her neck and jaw, pointed her head upwards and their lips met. Karen’s mouth was wet, open, willing.

The kiss ended with her hands sliding down Karen’s sweaty back. Karen was stunned, out of breath, confused and wanting. Lenora murmured goodbye my sister and walked alone towards her apartment without looking back for at least a block when she nervously glanced over her shoulder and sighed with relief now certain she wasn’t being followed.

Thankfully no texts.

It was just one of those things but you can only know how you feel about those things, not how the other person might feel.

Blaming the sausage and alcohol, Lenora skipped yoga class. She bought a carrot-cake muffin, banana and a large green tea with honey at the corner bodega and went to the park to sketch. She drew the trees and gazebo then went to another bench and drew bushes and flowers and knew that at least one of these studies could be the basis for a canvas. When her wrist felt tired she went to the café near the waterfront and ate a tuna fish with sprouts and tomato on multigrain toast and checked Facebook and liked all the pictures posted from Sweltering and it was not until her finger had tapped the fourth or fifth like did she remember that Natalia had broken her heart.