It wasn’t often that Banks walked down the Bowery. Too many memories. Not all of them bad, but at times they pulled on the muscles in his chest so that his heart felt like a clenched fist. But today he’d stopped by a new art-supply shop on the Bowery and 6th because he’d had them mix a particular shade of red for him. So here he was crossing 5th, then 4th, then Great Jones, headed toward his studio on the Lower East Side. She still lived there: Mathilda, his ex-wife. As Banks walked by his old front door, he paused and tried the handle. Locked. Studying the panel of buzzers, Banks slid his finger over #3A. When they’d first rented the loft, visitors would have to yell up to their third story window and he or Mathilda would throw the keys down in a sock. Sometimes the keys were damaged doing this, so, copying the technique of the local drug dealers, he tied a small basket to a rope and lowered them that way. Shortly after that, the building went co-op and Mathilda and he bought in––one of the first decisions the board made, of which Banks was a member, was to install a security system.
Freeing himself of the buzzers, Banks moved on. He had a show coming up at a gallery over on Twenty-fourth Street. He was grateful for it, grateful that his work still sold and for such, honestly, inflated prices, but he wasn’t sure how this latest group of paintings would do. The palette was a departure––blues and yellows and even some pink––and the shapes were round, plump.
“They rather look like babies,” his agent, Anna, had said.
It disturbed Banks to think about the paintings being hung on the pristine walls of the gallery. How frail and diffuse the colors were. His decision to outline them in the red that he was now toting to his studio had come as a clear and precise revelation, but he was starting to doubt it. There was a week yet to go. Back in the day, he could have painted a show’s worth of new work in a week, because back then he rarely slept. For days on end he’d paint and paint and drink coffee when the going got rough and smoke cigarettes and, when necessary, do some speed or coke, and none of it bothered him. But now, at forty-eight, he seldom made it past midnight. He patted down his pockets for a cigarette before remembering he’d quit.
Turning left on Stanton, he noticed a new juice bar. He used to come to Stanton to buy his drugs. Now people came here to buy their kale juice as well as organic, soy-dyed clothing. Further along, in what used to be a shooting gallery, there was a cupcake shop. This part of the street was also lined with small galleries showing young artists. Some of the work was good.
Gazing ahead he spotted his old friend Archie lumbering toward him. Archie was short and compact, like a terrier, with thick, dark hair, not a strand of gray, despite the fact that he was closing in on fifty. Clad in black trousers, a crisp white shirt, black rimmed glasses, and pomade-tamed hair, it was impossible to detect the former punk rock lead singer in him. He now managed a housewares store in Nolita.
“I think I’ve lived here too long,” Banks said after they’d exchanged hellos.
Nodding, Archie said, “I know what you mean.”
They stood in silence a moment then Banks said, “You’ve left the city, right?”
“Berlin for a bit in the early eighties. Malta. Sweden.”
Banks tried to picture himself in Malta.
“But you came back.”
“I always come back.”
Banks thought about his paintings again and felt an overwhelming urge to start fixing them right this moment.
“Gotta go,” he said to Archie.
“I’ll catch you later,” Archie said, striding toward the cupcake shop.
It was going on two, and the sun had shifted west so his eyes could relax as he headed east toward Pitt Street. Then, on the corner of Stanton and Clinton, Banks stopped short. In his mind the deep red outlines had transfigured into gold leaf. He would cover the canvases in gold leaf, each one indistinguishable from the next –– and only he would know what lay beneath. This felt right to him, somewhere just below his shoulder blades, but he’d never had a revelation that countered a revelation before.
You have to move with the changes, Mathilda always used to say, or you’ll become stagnant, like a swamp. “Don’t be a swamp,” she’d tease him when he was stuck on a painting. She was an artist too, a photographer. Once, when they were first married and every important gallery had passed on his work, she’d tiptoed out of her darkroom, quietly watched him from a corner, then had come to him––beneath the stop bath she still smelled of the soap from their shared morning shower––and said firmly, “Your upward brushstroke is too wide. It draws the viewer’s eye away from the painting itself, because we follow it up and into the empty space that surrounds it.” What nonsense, he’d thought, but he’d found himself experimenting with a narrower upward stroke. Later that month, Anna had convinced Mary Boone, the gallery owner at the time, to view his work again. And this time, Mary took two of his paintings to include in her upcoming group show.
It was last summer he’d learned Mattie was pregnant. They still co-owned the loft and he’d dropped by to check on a problem with the pipes. It had been years since his last visit and he’d been surprised to find the place unchanged. When they’d split, he’d taken nothing and he suddenly regretted giving it all up without a fight.
“Billy has cancer,” she said after they discussed her pregnancy. Billy was the NYU student Mattie had been “seeing” who, until moments before, Banks hadn’t taken all that seriously. He was struck by how calmly she spoke of his illness as well as how green her eyes looked in the afternoon light.
Banks muttered assuaging words. “Medicine today is very advanced…” and other such sentiments that he didn’t remotely believe. Medicine had only failed them. Both of Mattie’s pregnancies had ended in miscarriages, the second one far enough along to leave a traumatized Mattie filing for divorce because Banks’ face was a constant reminder. He wasn’t sure what upset him more––the thought of Mattie living through that sort of loss again or the idea that this time the baby would survive.
And then Billy, green with chemo, appeared in the doorway. Emaciated, hunched forward, coughing up phlegm, the kid proved to be surprisingly sweet. He didn’t complain about what was happening to him; he didn’t blame others or act like he was being ripped off. And that made Banks’ anger toward him hard to maintain.
What made it even harder was when Mattie left the room and Billy asked him to raise the baby, a girl, as if she was his own daughter.
“From what Mathilda says, you’d make a good father,” he said. “You two probably shouldn’t have gotten divorced.”
At first Banks found this comment arrogant, who was he to sit in judgement of their marriage, but again he was struck by the sensation that Billy was absolutely genuine. Not to mention he was correct, Mattie and he shouldn’t have divorced.
“I know I’m dying,” Billy said. In the distance, Banks could hear Mattie running water in the kitchen. “Mathilda won’t admit it, but she’s going to need help. And I want my daughter to grow up in a family. A true family. My parents died when I was young. I guess I’m carrying on the family tradition.” Billy laughed here, which made Banks uncomfortable, then went on. “I know you can do it.”
“How do you know?” Banks said, wondering what he was doing in this conversation.
Billy looked out the window at some pigeon that was looking in at them. Everything was silent. Billy said, “I just know.”
And almost instantly Banks had agreed. He’d gone there that day downhearted because Lisa, his girlfriend at the time, had wanted to get married and he wasn’t sure what to make of his emotions around that, but he’d left elated, with a new purpose in life: He would be a father after all.
Banks turned around on Stanton and squinted into the sun. He would have to hustle back to the store and get some gold leaf. Maybe, he thought, he would ring Mathilda’s buzzer this time.
“Hey,” someone shouted.
A young woman with extraordinarily red hair, an eyebrow piercing, a septum piercing, gauges, and a neon yellow tank top looked at him from the doorway of one of the small galleries.
“Yeah?” Banks said.
“Are you Banks Filbourne? You are, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” He was in a rush. He didn’t have time for some trendy youngster to tell him how his work was too literal, too easy to understand.
She smiled and said, “I love your work.”
His shoulders relaxed, and he wondered how long he’d been holding his body so tightly. “Thanks.” He figured her to be somewhere between seventeen and twenty-three. It was hard to pinpoint age with this generation.
They stood for a moment, then he thought of his baby blobs.
“Nice to meet you,” Banks said.
“But you didn’t meet me,” said the girl, twisting playfully on her heels. “I’m Shannon.” She reached out a hand to him, the fingernails painted green. Banks took it.
“Hello, Shannon with the green nails.” She blushed a little. “It’s very nice to meet you. Now I really must go.”
“Wait,” she said, stepping onto the sidewalk while digging through an enormous bag slung over her shoulder. “I knew it was you when I saw you coming.”
Banks glanced up at the gallery, barely larger than his bathroom, and saw a tall young man dressed in an orange hoodie and black track pants, watching them. He was classically handsome, but thin black tattoos ran up his neck.
Shannon produced a pen in one hand and a crumpled piece of paper, a receipt, in the other. “Will you sign this for me?”
“Sure,” he said, taking them from her. He had nothing to write against, so she bent forward and let him use her back. The young man watched from the window. To Shannon, he began. “Are you an artist?”
“Well, you know.” She squirmed and he could feel her ribs move. “Not like you are or anything.”
Keep the faith, he wrote. Banks Filbourne.
“Keep the faith”? Where had that come from? But it sounded like an autography thing to say.
“All done?” Shannon said, straightening up.
“Yeah.” Banks handed her the receipt, and she smiled and returned it to her gigantic bag. He felt he should say something inspirational and meaningful to her, that she was counting on him to, but his mind was blank. He was grateful when he saw Archie strolling up the street toward them, carrying a cupcake in each hand.
“I always buy two,” Archie said, when he reached them. “They’re so damn good, I like to give the second one to the first person I see.”
“Even strangers?” Shannon said.
Archie turned toward her as if discovering a rare breed of bird and nodded.
“Do they eat it?”
“Sometimes,” Archie said. “Others worry that I might poison them.”
“That’s what I would think,” Shannon said.
Archie gave one of the cupcakes to her.
Shannon smiled. “Well, now I kind of know you. It’s not the same.”
“You don’t know me,” Archie said. Then he held out his hand to shake. “Archie Parks.”
“Now you know me,” Archie said.
Banks watched uncomfortably. He’d known Archie for maybe twenty-five years and could tell when he was interested in a girl.
Shannon sniffed the cupcake, then took a bite.
She nodded and turned to Banks, “So, you’re married, right?”
This hit Banks in a tender part of his chest.
Shannon’s eyebrows shot up and she wriggled her cupcake-free hand in front of her. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t mean it in any personal sort of way.” She blushed again. “There’s just that series of paintings you did of a woman with long hair and those big hazel eyes. They span a bunch of years. The way you painted her, it’s clear you love her. Especially the one where she’s pregnant.”
He wondered just what he’d thought he was painting, if not babies.
“I need to go,” Banks said to Archie and Shannon.
“Where you headed?” Archie said.
“I’m headed in that direction too. I’ll walk with you.”
Banks turned to go, but Archie stayed put. Shannon stood shyly beside them, still holding her cupcake.
One afternoon, late in the pregnancy, when they’d given up hope for Billy and hospice had moved in, Mattie had told Banks she still loved him. They’d been meeting regularly, largely to discuss Billy’s request that Banks co-raise the baby. Banks had taken the proposal quite seriously and it seemed, at first, that Mattie had as well. He was ensconced in their lucky chair, the one he’d gotten Mattie pregnant in –– both times. He was particularly surprised she’d kept that. Mattie lounged on the couch, coddling her round belly. The years apart seemed inconsequential. Then she said, “But that doesn’t mean I want to live with you again.”
One of the hospice nurses dropped something in the second bedroom, where Billy was wasting away, and it clanged to the floor.
“It’s not you,” she said. “I just don’t think I want to live with anyone again. Not after all this.”
“What about the baby?” he asked. It didn’t even seem like Billy’s baby to him anymore. It felt like his. Theirs. One of the ones they’d lost.
Months later, after Clementine had been born, after Billy had made one of those crazy recoveries that aren’t supposed to be possible, and after Mathilda had stopped calling, though it shamed him to think it, Banks sometimes wished that Billy had died.
Banks stood beside the lovelorn Archie, who coughed then wiped his hand over his mouth. When it came to asking girls out, he was as shy as a schoolboy. Even when he was in the punk band, and the girls at CBGBs and Max’s crawled all over him, it was Banks who had to intervene and transform the drunken skirmish into a future date. Shannon just stood there beaming.
“Listen,” Banks said. “Perhaps we could all meet up for coffee sometime.” He didn’t even drink coffee. He’d given it up last summer with the cigarettes, in preparation. Mathilda had been clean for years now––all organic, all local, mostly raw. No smoking, no drinking––not that he drank anymore either, no caffeine. Nothing but sunshine, air, and love. Just not his love. Sometimes he pictured Billy and Mathilda getting it on. Not that he’d seen Billy since he’d gotten well, but he could conjure up an image of him in his head. Tall and lanky with that plump sort of mouth everyone coveted these days, he was a good looking kid. Better looking than Banks. And all that youthful energy. It sickened him to think about that being let loose on Mathilda. He’d satisfied her back in the day. Or at least he thought he had. But Billy was twenty-two now or thereabouts. Banks couldn’t compete with that.
“Sure,” the girl said, looking from Banks to Archie and back again. Archie finished the last bite of his cupcake. Shannon rested hers on the ledge of the gallery window, then dug in her purse again. She couldn’t find another scrap of paper. Banks extended his forearm.
He felt like one of his own paintings as the ink seeped into his flesh.
Banks and Archie hadn’t made it more than half a block when they heard raised voices behind them. They kept walking – it was the Lower East Side, after all – but then Banks realized one of the voices was Shannon’s.
The tall guy from the gallery was on the sidewalk now and shouting at Shannon. He had his hands raised above his head and was moving them as if shaking off water. Banks longed to get back to his paintings hunkered in his studio, but there Shannon stood, looking as raw and vulnerable as a newly hatched chick. Archie was already in motion.
By the time Banks caught up, Archie was right up in the kid’s face.
“What’s your fucking problem?” The guy spat.
Banks felt his solar plexus tighten.
“I don’t have a problem. What’s your problem?” Archie said. The fact that he now sold wildly overpriced couch pillows and decorative boxes didn’t mean he’d lost his edge.
“Nothing, except you.” The kids’ hair was close shaven, and Banks could now see the neck tattoos were Chinese characters of some sort. He pushed up the sleeves of his hoodie, revealing two forearms full of ink.
“David,” Shannon said, drawing out his name.
“Well, then, your problem just got bigger, David,” Archie said, stepping up so close that he had to tilt his head back so the top of it didn’t bump David’s chin.
Banks felt he should intervene. He’d often felt that Mathilda wanted him to fight. She’d even taken up boxing after they’d lost the first baby and, as it turned out, she was a natural at hitting things. Once, she’d described Archie as having “a warrior’s soul,” and Banks had never fully recovered from the awe in her voice when she said it. Granted they’d done Ecstasy that night, and she didn’t even remember saying it in the morning. But he remembered.
“Hey now,” Banks said. “This isn’t necessary.”
“The fuck you talkin’ to my girl for?” David turned toward Banks, and Banks felt his throat tighten.
“We were just discussing art.”
“Yeah?” the guy said.
“David,” Shannon said again. He could see now, from the way she looked at this kid, that she really loved him.
“What? So he is that guy you thought he was?” David gave Banks the once over with something that resembled disgust and then grabbed his hand. He stretched Banks’ arm out in front of him so quickly that it took Banks a few seconds to register what was happening.
“Why you got my girl’s number written up your arm?”
“Look,” Banks said. “There’s been a misunderstanding, but now isn’t the time to sort it out.”
“What?” David said. “We ain’t worth your time?”
“I’m not saying that,” Banks said. “I’ve just got work to do.”
“Well, before you go, wipe off that number.” David released him and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“David,” Shannon moaned. The two of them exchanged a look, softer this time, that contained a whole conversation. The shorthand of lovers.
Archie missed it and moved forward. Up this close, Banks could see Archie’s hair had begun to gray.
David pushed Archie back –– hard enough to almost knock him down this time, and before Banks knew what was happening, he was taking swing right at David’s face.
Banks woke up on the sidewalk with a pain in the back of his head and another in his jaw. As he came to, his first thought was of Clemmie. He wondered what she smelled like snuggled beside Mathilda in bed. Then he wondered what sort of smile she had, if it was hesitant then silly, like her mom’s. And then he wondered if he would ever get to meet her, and if she would ever know how much he loved her.
As the world came back into focus, Banks saw Shannon kneeling beside him, crying, and David looming behind her.
He let Archie pull him up.
“Sorry,” David said, shaking out his right hand. “But you made me do it.”
“Let’s go,” Archie said, leading Banks by his elbow. Banks turned up the block, toward the paint store, his head and jaw throbbing.
“Not that way,” Archie said. “Let’s get you to the ER.”
“I don’t need a hospital,” Banks said. He needed to buy the gold leaf and cover the babies in it. He caught a glimpse of the half-eaten cupcake on the ledge behind David and Shannon.
“I’m sorry, man,” David said again. He seemed genuine. “I wasn’t expecting a guy your age to come at me like that.”
“Fuck you,” Banks said.
Nobody said a word.
A deep anger was rising up in Banks, and he was pretty sure he couldn’t restrain it – though he was also pretty sure he couldn’t throw any more punches even if he’d wanted to. Then, just as quickly, the anger subsided, and a sadness rumbled through him so thoroughly that he feared it might bring him to his knees.
“We were once in love too,” Banks said. He closed his eyes. Mattie was there. And their two children – a boy and a girl. The boy was laughing and picking up bottles caps from the street so that they could later skim them across the East River. The girl, more solemn, was watching everyone who passed as carefully as a cat. Banks could hear the boy’s rushed breathing and smell the girl’s hair. They were that close.
Jane Ratcliffe’s short stories have appeared in New England Review, The Sun, NER Digital, The Intima. “You Can’t Be Too Careful” was selected as a Best American Short Stories Notables 2013. Her novel, The Free Fall (Henry Holt), was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the most notable books of the year. Her work has been anthologized in Lost and Found: Stories from New York edited by Thomas Beller. And she’s written for numerous magazines and websites includingVogue, The Huffington Post, Vh-1, Interview, Guernica, Tricycle and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. She has her MFA from Columbia University.
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