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Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space

by Nora Chassler

NYC, 1966

Vivian, three-inch make-up wand poised, opened her eyes wide in the Maybelline compact to put on her blue mascara. Then – feeling the sunset on her smooth thick skin – she returned the little brush to its place on the floor without having used it. It was the eighth item in the clock-circle of pots, wands and compacts that were arranged around her. Viv was sitting Indian-style in the center of the circle, still holding her small pisshole-in-the-snow-eyes (as her dead father had called them) as wide as they would go. Then she rose very slowly, her too-small head held very straight – as if she were balancing a book on it, like a girl practicing for the Miss America title – and walked over to her big curved bay window.

Her face is tighter than when we’ll see it next, but less sharp. She’s coated in a layer of dishwashing liquid and 50s kitchen radio. But the soft cheeks don’t hide the look she’ll still have 16 years later – the look that makes her appear always to be plotting something. Viv stood straight and motionless at the open window that faced the Hudson River and New Jersey, which had only Palisades, and no high-rises yet. She listened to the rhythm of the needle hitting the end of side 1 of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, over and over and over again.

Viv waited. She drank some Tropicana out of the carton (the one with the racist graphic of the native girl in a grass skirt, with huge eyes and a basket of oranges balanced on her head). She followed the progress of a rusty, high-heaped garbage barge ploughing downtown in the wine-red river, the seagulls circling above it, as if on stiff wires. Thank God, she thought, as the last thick drip of orange juice slid to the back of her throat. It’d been six years, and there were several moments every day where she actually thanked god to be out of her mother’s house. Viv ripped a piece of paper from a composition book that was on the sill, got to her knees above the rat-he-ate-her so she could see the river, and wrote:


September 30

103rd Street

Mudda Dear,

In answer to your repeated queries, I am doing very well.

I have a new job that lacks the cachet of social worker, but it is lucrative and less emotionally taxing. I’m glad I switched. I’m a bartender now at The Gold Rail, which is a few steps from Columbia. I meet ‘many interesting people’ and get to listen in on, if not take part in, their conversations. Yesterday I served Allen Ginsberg a beer. You probably don’t know who he is. A very famous beatnik poet.

Oh, please stop worrying about me! I worry about you worrying about me, and that makes it into an infinity mirror. Remember the one I made in shop class in high school? I have three big boy roommates to protect me. Maynard Candy, Dick Grouse, and Johnny Madrid. They all want to meet you. I showed them your photograph and told them what a great dancer you are. I wish you could see my view. It is sunset right now. I wish it could be right now forever. The sky is red red red. There is a barge on the river. If I lean, I can see the tops of the heads of a large Hasidic family walking down below in Riverside Park. The sunlight is filtering down on their heads through the sycamore leaves.

And I do ‘have plans’. I plan to marry. The smartest fella I can find, preferably a Jew. Then I’ll live a life of unconventional mediocrity, here, where I may go unnoticed… But seriously, I have plans, but I think if I tell you it will jinx ‘em…

Please find enclosed the 75 dollars I owe you.

Give my unkind regards to your wretched husband Norman.

Love your dotta,
Vivvy

PS: And now I think to add: I LOVE NEW YORK. I AM IN LOVE WITH NEW YORK MOM!


Kooky, Viv’s first cat, came and rubbed her body back and forth along Viv’s Levis, then jumped up onto the windowsill and disappeared from sight. Outside, the cat took the corner of the loose limestone gingerly – the masonry shifted a tiny bit – and she smelled the high air: a barbecue; pigeon’s under-feathers; cigarette smoke; exhaust; then she climbed through the neighbor’s window, where she liked to sleep on a patterned, threadbare velvet cushion.

Viv lit the half-a-joint she’d been saving. The cherry was like the bottom of a tiny rocket blasting off. She stopped looking out the window. She paced around in figure eights on the polished wood floor, sang a tune to the perpetually ending record (Oh Maybelline, why can’t you be true!) and took a little book from the shelf, black and white and the size of a sandwich. She’d been in a barbershop quartet in high school, and she now read a poem aloud in a strong, confident voice, her chest pressed forward slightly. She attempted Allen’s accent: ‘Who kailled the poorwk chaaps? What price banaaanas? Are you my ain-gel?’

One of her roommates – the well-known transvestite Johnny Madrid – came in quietly, in a coffee stained silk shirt that he’d been wearing for three days, beard growth on his shiny chin, and surprised her. They kissed – one pretty and one pockmarked cheek – and said ‘Hello DAHling.’ Johnny grabbed the book, and did a perfect Ginsberg imitation. He had had the pleasure.

Then they ate some liver and bacon and onions that Viv fried, and each drank a glass of V8 juice. When Kooky smelled the liver, she came back in and had some too. After eating, Viv picked up her circle of dimestore chemicals, because Johnny had to practice his Rosemary Clooney sketch in the living room. Viv (slightly deflated; why? why? she didn’t know) went into her tiny bedroom that faced the airshaft, took off her jeans and sailor shirt and pulled a very short, red, stiff velvet dress over her head.

On her way to meet her friend Carol – with whom she was going to see a new folk act at the Tin Pan Alley – Viv decided to stop at the Woolworth’s on 110th and Broadway. It was often this way: Viv was ready too early. For several years now, she’d been pacing – at the moment around her tiny corridor of a room, to give Johnny and the others some space. Before that she paced her dorm room at Vassar. Before that, her mother’s bathroom. She was always waiting for something to happen, even once she got where she was going – to the party or gig or play or BBQ. The fact that nothing ever did happen was something she’d spend many more hours wondering about later. She’d cataloged thousands of ‘mistakes’. The blame was always to be found in some detail. She’d chosen the wrong dress, or thought the wrong thought at the wrong moment, or eaten liver and onions. Walking uptown in the dusk, she saw the street lamps switch on, and realized she had a 100% chance of ending up disappointed again, tonight. The fact that it had taken her ten years to notice the pattern struck her as hilarious. She was thinking all this as she pushed open the clammy glass door into Woolworth’s.

They were mopping up and turning off the lights. Closing time. Viv and an old lady stood over the clearance bin, eyeing the dying plants, discontinued lipstick shades and expired fishfood. The old lady, whose hair was dyed a bizarre aquamarine and who wore pointy cat’s-eye glasses with green lenses, picked up a clear crystal ball the size of a cantaloupe. It was an ornament for an ‘executive’ fish tank. She dragged her glasses to the tip of her nose, and studied and hefted the ball. She looked up and Viv was staring at her. They eyed each other. Neither was the type to back down.

‘Fish enthusiast?’ asked Viv.

‘I’m a psychic.’

‘Boloney.’ Viv snorted.

The weird old lady put her open hand over her eyes, palm out, and ran it past her face in an ‘Orientalist’ fashion, the way a belly dancer does in a James Bond Movie.

‘Ok, tell me my future.’

The ‘psychic’ squinted into the ball.

Then someone noticed them. ‘Woolworth closing now, señoras,’ the voice said, and hit the lights.

They stayed put over the dark octagonal bargain bin, shiny artifacts within caught the remaining light.

The old lady zoomed her head closer and further from the fish-tank thingee, as if demolishing an invisible obstacle. ‘I see … I see … I see a lotta bullshit.’

‘Ha!’

‘Ha ha ha ha!’

‘Alright girls, closing now!’

After she left Woolworth’s, empty-handed, Viv wandered around in Riverside Park, not wanting to show up at Carol’s too early. All the fucking waiting! The bullshit! That was the truth. In the dark and empty park, she set about pacing and smoked a Lucky Strike. She thought about a short story she might write. She’d call it: ‘The Night of the Lost Iguana’. It would be about the time Dick Grouse’s iguana escaped, about the slow, fruitless search that ensued. It would be a sad story, told from the dead iguana’s point of view. She was still stoned as she paced in circles under the lamp, keeping just outside the light on the ground. She wished she had more pot. She thought, why can’t you just be stoned all the time? Where is it fucking written?




by Nora Chassler, from Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space (£8.99, £3.99 Kindle)

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