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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

A Shadow in Chelsea
by Milton Beyer ||
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Orson Welles and John Houseman created the Black Theatre in Harlem, an offshoot of their W.P.A. federal-funded Mercury Theatre. They produced "Macbeth" there in 1936 and I took a school chum, Ruth, to see it on a date. I was 19; she was 18.
     The witches scene: A Caribbean island and a voodoo ceremony. Celebrants are painted, feathered and bedecked around a blazing fire; pounding drums and raising dust with dancing feet. Goats and chickens wait for the sacrifice.
     It was offputting. Either the production or the date or both. Ruth was a hip young radical; I was striving to get ahead in a business career. I had the hots for her. She didn't have the hots for me. We drifted apart.
     Harlem is my fate. I was born on West 130th Street. It was white then; 1917. I met my date at City College on 133rd Street and now I'm into a Black Macbeth on 135th Street.
     Four years later, the story resumed.

The shadow on the wall speaks, "My father is the sun, my mother the casement window. My straight black lines on the wall of the living room frame a tableau of a young woman taking a picture of a newly married couple. They are smiling and happy and beautiful. It is their first weekend in their first apartment."
     The building is a cooperative at 433 West 21st Street in Chelsea, New York City. The Theological seminary, occupying a square block, is visible through the open window. The sun is streaming into the room. Bessie, the bride's friend, is snapping the photo.
     Bessie has just arrived at the apartment after a session posing for the sculptor Chaim Gross, in his Greenwich Village studio. The nude figure of a chunky, nubile young girl will find its way one day to the Hirshhorn Museum.
     They met in the common room of City College at the stand-up lunch counter. She asked him for a cigarette. It was the beginning of the fall semester, 1936.
     Their first date, a few days later, was riding the Fifth Avenue bus downtown after school. They went on top and sat on one of the front seats. The beginning of love was ever after associated with views into second-story windows on Fifth Avenue. They were seeing moving pictures of Oriental rugs, antique furniture, portraits, sculptures and Beaux Arts architecture.
     They stopped at the Brass Rail for coffee and cherry cheese cake before parting; she to Queens and he to The Bronx by subway.
     Four years later he was living at the Regent Hotel on upper Broadway. They had recently resumed a relationship that had been broken off for three years. After their long-delayed love making that evening at the Regent, they drove to Gallagher's Steak House on West 52nd Street. They arrived after midnight, dined on steaks and left after 3:00 a.m. Both basic drives were appeased and the feeling was bliss. They pledged their love and decided to marry as soon as possible.
     Christmas holidays delayed blood tests and it was January when Henry Schimmel, City Court Judge, performed the wedding ceremony in his chambers in the Municipal Court House at City Fall Plaza.
     Judge Schimmel, a good and sweet guy, was a Tammany Hall stalwart. He was secretly married to Kitty, an Irish-American school teacher, who lived with her parents in Jersey City. The judge lived with his widowed, Jewish mother in Manhattan. The union was secret because all the parents were violently opposed to a "mixed marriage." The loving couple did share a Manhattan apartment on weekends until time, curing all things, removed the objectors.
     After the wedding supper at Cavanaugh's on 23rd Street, they drove to Herald Square, home of Gimbel's and Macy's. At midnight, flower wholesalers loaded the sidewalks with fresh cut flowers from far and near to supply the city's florists with their flower needs for the new day. They bought armfuls of California-grown jonquils, purple heather and mimosa and then drove to their new apartment in Chelsea. The flowers were placed in a laundry bucket, a wood fire was lit in the fireplace and a 50-year tradition of anniversary flowers began.
     Later, he mused, "What did the shadow see?" He didn't understand.

* * *

          Three things are too wonderful for me;
          Four I do not understand:
          The way of an eagle in the sky,
          The way of a serpent on a rock,
          The way of a ship on the high seas,
          And the way of a man with a maiden.

                                             Proverbs xxx 18

* * *

He returned home one early afternoon on a hot July day at an unexpected time -- tried the key in the lock -- the chain was fastened and he couldn't open the door. He knocked and knocked again. And again. It was three or four minutes -- it seemed longer before his wife released the security chain and opened the door.
     She was flushed -- and embarrassed. She was nervous and anxious.
     He asked why she had double locked and chained the door. She didn't answer.
     The answer soon appeared from the bedroom -- her former lover with his shoelaces untied.
     He shouted -- "Get the fuck out of here and don't come back!"
     He did without speaking.
     The wound scarred over but never really healed.
     Later -- 50 years later -- she said nothing happened.
     She said, "I liked Bill." He said, "Why didn't you marry?" She said, "I didn't like him enough."

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