Thanksgiving was in the past, and the New Year, as ever, in the future.
It was winter in New York, a season for parties.
Accompanied by his fourth wife, Carl Fish attended only the finest, which he defined by his attendance. Often, these affairs were fundraisers although this one was not. Even so, Carl expected that before the evening ended, he would be asked to donate, attend, or approve, and the absence of such solicitation would be his cue abruptly to depart.
Indeed, only lack of recognition offended Carl, so that he was currently aggrieved by a woman standing across the room beside a huge marble fireplace. Who was she not to accept eye contact with him? He did not know her, and she showed no indication of craving an alteration.
His young Swedish wife slid off his arm as undetected as a garter snake.
Carl crossed the Beaux Arts gallery of the unique mansion. It was 13,000 square feet, freestanding, detached from any neighboring building on Riverside Drive, the only such privately owned single-family residence left in Manhattan. Its wood-paneled walls, stone, marble and metal castings had been created by the same H.H. Martyn & Co. artisans who decorated the Titanic. Henry James would have recognized the Lincrusta linoleum-like wallpaper in the bathrooms.
Carl was welcomed by the mansion’s heir/owner and greeted by all the guests, including the mysterious woman’s coterie.
At his arrival, conversation ceased and waited for Carl to resume it. At no time during the ensuing dialog did the woman say anything except to reply to another man’s question about working in New York a dozen years earlier, coming from Milwaukee.
“But nothing comes from Milwaukee except beer!” Carl said, taking a sip of the fine port known to be his favorite.
For the first time, the woman looked not at, but through him as if he were a sheet of glass, beyond him, to a dark-skinned man crossing the room toward them.
This stranger had a full head of graying Afro-textured hair. Carl was entirely bald and invested all his follicle vanity in a grand, white mustache as characteristic of the 19th century as the mansion. Accompanying his default facial expression, the mustache had created Carl’s brand recognition as The Silver Snarl.
Carl thought the woman would have two strikes against her for preferring the hirsute black man, had she cared to be in the game. What game was this? The woman was tall and grey-haired, Carl’s age and she wore glasses. Perhaps poor eyesight or Wisconsin ignorance could account for her lack of recognition or interest in someone with his international stature. ‘Just like this place, ‘ silently he self-assured, ‘unique.‘
Another woman standing nearby observed Carl Fish as she always did.
Schatzie’s husband loathed Carl although they did, on occasion, do business together. Edward was exclusively involved in real estate and had won a seat on the City Council while Carl was more diversified and currently in competition for national office. He was therefore accompanied by two Secret Service agents.
Schatzie was not the hostess of this party, but as a ringleader of the Manhattan social circus, she appreciated any opportunity to trouble Carl. She could see that the woman from Milwaukee bothered him. It was well within her power to cross their event paths.
Schatzie smiled and thought: Nature abhors a vacuum as much as I do Carl Fish.
Schatzie also thought: the sky is always falling, and as Mao accurately said, women hold up the heavier half.
It could be argued that this affair was like a fulcrum poised between a carriage trade past and a future similarly corrupt but separated by Time, technology, and attendant orders of magnitude. One way or another, the mansion entertained partygoers related to forebears on the White Star’s fallen titan.
Schatzie was acquainted with the woman from Milwaukee. Decades earlier, they had been college classmates. They had lived in the same dormitory freshman year.
Peggy had not owned nor knew how to wear clothes, which Schatzie had let her borrow for mixers at Yale. Peggy had read all the books assigned in Schatzie’s English class and helped her write essays.
The symbiosis snapped when scholarship-student-Peggy could not go along on a spring break trip to St. Bart’s. As seniors, when Schatzie became yearbook editor-in-chief, she had asked Peggy to be on staff, but like most of Schatzie’s associations, the partnership hadn’t lasted long.
Schatzie had no idea how Peggy had found her way to upper Manhattan. Since she clearly annoyed Carl Fish, Schatzie intended to find out. Taking a flute of champagne from a passing server, Schatzie turned from the group she was in and joined the others around Carl, Peggy, and the dark, dignified man with his arm loosely around her waist.
Margaret squinted through new progressive lenses. “Charlotte? Tillinghast —?”
Schatzie displayed a diamond eternity band. “Yes, Peg, still married after all these years – to Edward. Baumgarten.”
Talking through their interruption, Carl Fish concluded his speech,”—will investigate that firing of Bronx I.S. principal who threw out the refusnik teachers’ desks and file cabinets in front of kids. That was a bad object lesson! Undermined the principal’s good object lesson. Teachers should stand all day, not sit.”
Finally, the aloof woman looked at him.
“What do you think?” Carl asked.
Schatzie said, “Imagine Carl asking! Oh, Peggy, consider yourself honored. Are you in New York for long? We must get together.”
Carl could see the women knew one another. ‘Peggy’ was frowning. That was in his favor. Introductions followed.
“Peg Arnold,” Schatzie said.
“It was never an imperative, Charlotte. I’m Margaret,” she corrected.
“Tebeldi Kipketer,” her husband diverted.
“What is that?” Carl said.
Carl’s mustache and expression translated his laugh into signature snarl, “Where’s your birth certificate?!”
A morning soon after, bundled up against the early December chill, Schatzie Tillinghast Baumgarten stood on her penthouse terrace on Central Park South. The building was one of many belonging to her husband’s family corporation. Coinciding with the end of the 20th century, Schatzie and Edward and their three children had moved one floor up into his mother’s apartment when she died.
The only thing higher up than Schatzie’s empty nest on the ziggurat was a strange house perched above the middle of the penthouse floor. From a distance, this later addition to the building looked like a tiny top hat centered on a square-jawed stone bust. Despite or because of its antic appearance, it had been rented for decades by a Broadway celebrity, and more recently by a Chinese investor when the British composer returned to England.
The residence’s astronomical rent reflected its nearly cosmic Billionaires’ Belt view overlooking Central Park. Its vista had been unchallenged until a luxury condominium rose above the 1776 feet height of One World Trade Center, not counting that building’s spire. At 1,396 feet, the new 432 Park towered above a row of buildings on the southern end of the greensward, so tall it required approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Schatzie looked up as a jet left a contrail. She hugged her hooded fur with two gloved hands.
It was windy on the terrace and snow was predicted, but since 9/11, she shivered in every season at the sight of any aircraft over Manhattan.
Resolutely, she followed her therapist’s directions and replaced the memory with plans for the parties – she called them ‘dalloways‘ – when next she could cross Carl Fish.
By this time, she had discovered why and where her classmate was in the city.
Decades earlier, Peggy Arnold had married an actor in the major Milwaukee theater where she was artistic director and contributing playwright. She had won awards. A new play of hers plus husband had been commissioned by Dava McAllister, a producer Schatzie knew from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts where they were both trustees.
When called upon, Dava agreed to host an occasion sooner rather than an already scheduled later. Schatzie ignored as much, as she disbelieved the producer’s deft explanation that her invitation had not yet been mailed.
Unknown to Schatzie at the same time, in the midst of campaigning, Carl Fish had demanded the same information and acquired an invitation before the hostess even had a chance to offer it.
Margaret and Tebeldi arrived late to this second engineered encounter. Rehearsal and revision occupied their attention, and they agreed to attend only because they knew it was the way of their world.
As they changed for the party, Tebeldi muttered, “…silverfish…”
Margaret grimaced, scanning the bedroom for insects.
“No, ” he reassured her, “not here. At this party, that bloviator.”
“Ah, the aviator of his own hot air.”
Tebeldi said, “There should be some other black hole he can collide with so it’d be another billion years before its gravitational wave hit us. And we’re running late, too. Where did we have to be fifteen minutes ago?”
“The invitation said at a ‘bespoke living experience’ on East End Avenue.”
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Milwaukee anymore.”
Dava McAllister had been piqued by both Carl’s and Schatzie’s ‘requests’ to invite the Midwestern playwright whom they called ‘Margaret’ and ‘Peg,’ respectively.
The McAllister townhouse faced the New York City’s Mayor’s Gracie Mansion and the East River. Carl Fish knew it was merely the old family’s [trains/mining/real estate $] Pied a Terre near the new Chambered Nautilus building by a Fish company on East End Avenue, with its ‘Build more stately mansions O my soul’ advertising of the entry’s palatial staircase. The McAllisters used the Mayor’s mansion park-facing residence during the holiday season. In the summer, Carl had been to their ‘cottage’ in Newport, though not the one in Bermuda in the fall.
With his Secret Service detail, Carl quickly climbed the circular stone steps of the red brick arched façade and entered through the double wide wrought iron/beveled glass doors. He contrasted the long but narrow 19th century rooms and parquet floors with the spacious interiors of his Nautilus building, but the ceiling mouldings deserved an approving lip curl as did the grey-veined white marble, working fireplaces, profusion of red poinsettias, Christmas garlands, and liveried wait staff proferring silver trays aromatic with hors d’oeuvres and various shaped crystal glasses identifying their liquid contents.
Decorative women wore floor length gowns and earrings, all glittering like the clear crystal Tiffany chandeliers high above.
Carl’s arrival was the event of the evening, timed after the other guests.
He spotted and would have avoided Schatzie Baumgarten had she not been standing beside Margaret Arnold and her Kenyan. A server gave Carl his port and small hors d’oeuvres plate. He walked straight for the trio and lifted his glass in a toast.
“To Milwaukee, which means good, beautiful, pleasant land … or gathering place by the water. Which is it, Algonquin, Potawatomi, or Ojibway?”
The theater couple focused their eyes on an invisible scrim.
“Where is your lovely wife this evening?” Schatzie asked.
“Where is your lovely husband?” Carl replied.
“Iowa means …‘ Tebeldi began.
The Iowa Governor had predicted Carl’s recent loss in the Hawkeye State.
His face deeply colored against his grand mustache. Red and white made Carl look like a life-size ornament in keeping with the lavish Christmas décor.
Margaret disengaged the hand Schatzie had taken at Carl’s approach and walked away.
Tebeldi followed his wife with his eyes and eased, “I only meant that Iowa is named for the Ioway tribe. That’s what surrounding tribes called them. Almost all native tribes in modern America are known by the wrong names. Ioway might be Dakota or Lakota for ‘sleepy’ or ‘lazy’. So Iowa is a white American corrupted version of a Sioux word. The name they call themselves is Báxoje, and no one knows what that means.” Tebeldi paused for his exit line. “Let me catch up with Margaret, and she’ll regale you with the Hudson River’s native name, Mahicanituck.”
Alone except for the agents, Schatzie and Carl stared at one another.
Then she smiled.
“Rhymes with ‘fuck,'” Carl said and turned on his tuxedo shoes’ black patent leather heel.
After Valentine’s Day, the weather was unseasonably warm. In upstate New York near the Canadian border, the maples were already being tapped for syrup.
Carl had won a primary in a southern state whose senior Senator tweeted, Schatzie followed, that it would be better for the opposing party to win in November rather than The Snarl. She heartily concurred, as did her lunch companion, Milena Kiamos, an Australian journalist she had met through one of many committee connections.
Schatzie was enjoying the woman’s accent and unconsciously imitating it. She offered Milena the possibly useful morsel of her college classmate’s effect on Carl Fish.
“We’ll see your Carl Fish and raise you our Clive Palmer,” Milena said, “who is himself intending to raise a new Titanic II. Its maiden voyage is planned from Jiangsu in China to Dubai in the UAE. His global marketing director is in New York now. My distant cousin Despina is the manager of corporate and social events at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum downtown. Palmer’s guy is going to a big do there. So am I!”
She lifted an oyster to her open mouth and said, “I wish the world was my this!”
Schatzie sipped her prosecco. “Were,” she said. “Maybe it is.”
Milena noisily swallowed the bivalve and ignored the correction.
“We’ll all be there, then, including – “
“The blow Fish?!”
Schatzie nodded. She enjoyed the effect of that morsel on Milena’s widened eyes. The ‘do’ was more of her indirect doing, another Peg-crossing-Snarl-irritating dalloway to take place in the Intrepid’s Hangar Bay 2 event space.
“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers,” Schatzie said.
Carl would have preferred the affair held at his five-star fifty story hotel tower nearest the South Sea Seaport, in its restaurant, lounges, or ballroom.
He had had a hand or whatever in the artworks commissioned by local artists for its lobby by a former mistress-cum-gallery agent. But he had to admit – silently – that having the 45,000 tons of the Intrepid’s steel under his feet and the sun setting over the Hudson casting its last golden light on the East River was a competitive view.
He’d been helicoptered in to arrive early; two other meetings were scheduled afterward elsewhere.
The agents kept up with him as Carl accepted sparkling water, avoided food, and searched for Margaret Arnold in the wide Rotunda, the outdoor patio, and portside terrace elevator from hangar deck to the flight deck, returning indoors past Avenger and Fury aircraft to a replica of the Gemini capsule.
Margaret Arnold was engrossed in reading its placard.
Trailing Carl was Schatzie, and nearby Milena Kiamos waited with the object of her attendance who had made it clear he wanted an audience with Fish as much as she did. The Australian pair eavesdropped as Carl interrupted the playwright’s reading.
Gesturing, Carl indicated the Gemini capsule, “That’s the pooch that Gus Grissom screwed,” he said.
Days later, on the second leg of her return flight to Melbourne, Milena hesitated at her laptop with the difficulty of recreating the scene. While most passengers were asleep around her, the light from the screen further tired her. Why was it essential to get the sequence of events in chronological order? Milena shut her eyes.
More importantly, what Rosebud secret could explain Carl Fish’s reaction to the harmless older woman? Milena thought in Power Points:
• Margaret Arnold had turned when Fish spoke.
• Milena had stepped forward.
• The Secret Service giants moved.
• Milena said, “No, that was the Mercury mission in ’61. This is a replica of the ’65 Gemini 3. Grissom died in the Apollo fire in ’67.”
• “NO?” Fish roared.
Milena recoiled again.
She opened her eyes and steadied her hands on the laptop. She turned them over, palms up, as she had to the agents. As if the tableau had turned into a lodestone and all the guests’ smartphones into iron filings, everyone had turned to face them.
Had the music stopped?
Milena could not remember every word of Fish’s rant, only that its effect amplified the magnet metaphor.
She knew that Margaret Arnold was the only one who got away, again turning her back and fleeing Carl Fish. His voice Dopplered in the viral videos and tweets of his #Rumplestiltkin meltdown.
The escaping Mystery Woman became a momentary center of the media circus.
A New Yorker cartoon showed a disconsolate, rejected fish-headed Pierrot.
A Chicago newspaper’s cover went international with a photoshopped image of Fish as a fish too small to keep, headlined THROWN BACK!
Milena’s fingers again flew on the keys.
It remained to be seen whether this was a turning point in the labyrinthine American election process which she was conflating with Clive Palmer’s plans for a Titanic II.
She finished the draft with the Edmund Burke quotation,
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
She closed the laptop and finally shut her eyes.
The Pacific lay far below, its steep surface waves and deepest trenches unimagined by nearly everyone on board.