May 5, 1955
The Sloan Cadogan Galleries
960 Third Avenue
New York, NY
Mr. Jethro Turner
Apt. 41, 16 Biggin St.,
Dear Mr. Turner,
I regret to inform you that, since we have been unable to sell any of your work in the past two years, we will no longer be able to represent you in New York.
We presently have five of your landscapes, which we will be happy to return to you. Because of their size, it will cost $303.50 to box and send them. Please let us have a check for that amount in the next month.
If we should not hear from you by the end of June, we will contribute them to the Oswald School of Fine Arts.
D. Allen Coagle
The loosely-folded letter lay on the dark painted wood of the bathroom floor, near the lighter-colored trail that had been worn from the door to the toilet. Even closer to the toilet, there was a copy of MAD Magazine and a rubber turtle that had been chewed by a dog. Within the easiest reach of all was the sports section from a week-old edition of a Cincinnati newspaper. The paper had had torn from it a number of chunks, one of which had decapitated big Ted Kluszewski as he was hitting a home run for the Cincinnati Reds.
Miss Melissa Medway was sitting primly, and with a certain elegance, on the toilet. As she was in the act of leaving Mr. Kluszewski with little but his bat, she paused and reached out with a high-heeled black shoe to bring the letter within her grasp. When she read it, she gave a little cry of distress.
Jethro Turner, a large man close to forty, had a round bald spot toward the back of his head. Melissa had once characterized it as a miniature man-hole cover giving access to the brain. Many of Jethro's friends did think that his brain needed to be adjusted, if not totally reconstructed. Jethro insisted that the behavior they perceived as craziness was a normal manifestation of his partly Cherokee background. This heritage had, at various times, allowed him to represent himself as a Cajun fisherman, a Samoan day-laborer, and a Spanish diplomat.
Melissa Medway was now speaking somewhat petulantly across the dinner table,
"You're always leaving me unpleasant surprises, Jethro. You must have known that I'd find the letter there."
Jethro, waiting until he had throughly processed his mouthful of linguini with red clam sauce, replied,
"I was going to wipe myself with it, but, on second thought, it didn't seem as if the texture would be good."
"When did it come?"
"It must then have been in the mail you opened just before lunch."
"You didn't say a word about it, and you were particularly cheerful at lunch. That constitutes forced cheerfulness. Moreover, you were concealing emotion. You'll erupt one day and murder the mayor."
Jethro made no reply, and Melissa, conscious of looking like an idealistic but embattled young graduate of a superior women's college, picked delicately but purposefully at the little salad of mandarin oranges and endives she had made to go with the linguini. It wasn't until they had both finished that she said,
"I think you're also ignoring injury added to insult. They're making you pay for sending the paintings back."
"I'm not paying. I haven't got one hundred, much less three."
"But they'll give your wonderful landscapes to that little art school! At least the students will appreciate them more than these supposed aesthetes."
"Art schools don't want paintings. They have too many to begin with. The students will Gesso over the canvasses and paint the models and themselves and each other."
Melissa, recoiling, replied,
"One of them's 'Black Forest with White Crows', isn't it?"
Jethro nodded. It was a painting full of foreboding which had upset a rich lady at the gallery opening. Indeed, saying that it was threatening and satanic, she was forced to drink long and deeply from the champagne. Melissa, delighted, had claimed that no one but Jethro was capable of frightening people with landscapes. She now added,
"How can they possibly fail to sell a painting that's been in The American Artist? They must be hopeless fools."
"People may be impressed by it, but they don't want it in their homes. We're about the only people there are who'll hang a print of Goya's 'Execution of the Prisoners'."
He glanced at the wall, where one of the pictured Spaniards, his arms raised and his white face wild with fury, was preparing to receive a volley in his chest and stomach. Jethro seemed to take great comfort in the print, and he and Melissa occasionally drew one another in similar poses. Rising carefully so as not to upset the card table on which they ate, she said,
"I'll pay to get your work back. In return, I wonder if you'd consider giving me just a little help around the apartment."
Since she stood six feet tall, quite apart from her heels, Melissa was well above the still-seated Jethro. While this gave her a certain ascendency, it was, she knew, not nearly enough. She then glanced upward with the thought that, if either she or Jethro believed in a higher power, she might have appealed for the kind of minor miracle that would set Jethro down on his knees, with or without rosary, to scrub the floors. The dirty yellow-white ceiling with its paint flaking off suggested that there was no hope in that direction. Before she could organize any alternative form of support for her request, Jethro smiled and replied,
"Sure. I fixed the faucet just the other day."
"That was last month. Just yesterday, you pretended not to have noticed that Mortimer had an accident on the floor."
Mortimer, a large red Doberman, heard his name and bounced over to Melissa to be patted. As she plied the dog's articulated reptilian neck with her long powerful fingers, Jethro replied,
"I really didn't notice it."
"Well, it's not so nice to come home and almost step in it. That was an unpleasant surprise of yet another kind. Anyhow, the fact that we live in a slum doesn't mean that we have to adopt a brutal form of life ourselves."
As Jethro began to reply, Melissa interrupted,
"And please don't tell me that I'm a spoiled bourgeois materialist. I'd hardly be here if I were."
Jethro addressed Mortimer,
"I don't think she likes presents on the floor. If you want to make a good impression, put your nose up under her skirt."
Mortimer looked confused, but actually did probe gently around Melissa's legs. She spoke softly to him, urging him to ignore his master's remarks. She then moved briskly to the mantle and picked up a small goldfish bowl with a single goldfish in it. Balancing the bowl in her left hand and aiming deliberately, she threw it at Jethro. He fended it off with his fore-arm, and, after the crash, he scooped the floundering fish off the floor with his water glass. Mortimer followed the fish with his eyes, but Melissa said nothing as Jethro went to the kitchen to fill the glass. From the kitchen he called out,
"Goldfish grow in proportion to the size of their bowl. I wonder if he'll get smaller."
Melissa said nothing as she strode out the door.
When she returned at dinner time the next day, Melissa was briefly detained on the sidewalk by Bobby, a young man who lived in her building. He was, she believed, not quite right. But he was fairly clean in both person and speech, and she usually exchanged a few words with him. On this occasion, he suddenly pulled a rumpled five dollar bill out of the pocket of his torn jeans. Pointing across the street, he said triumphantly,
"She gimme it."
On the other side of the cobble-stoned street, just past a little group of loiterers, the slanting western sunlight picked out a woman in a faded print dress leaning against a trolley pole. Looking at least fifty, the woman might have been forty, or even less. Somewhat withered about the neck and shoulders with her feet in shoes so worn that they looked like slippers, it was clear, even at that distance, that she had bad hair and teeth.
It wasn't hard to guess what Bobby had done to earn the money. At first, Melissa took the woman's posture to be indicative of sexual exhaustion. Then, on closer examination, it seemed more likely that she always looked that way. It was simply life in the district that had long ago defeated any inclination to stand straight and be counted.
A man who had been standing nearby began,
"You'd have to gimme more than five fuckin bucks..."
As another man came up and expressed similar sentiments, Melissa turned her back and said softly to Bobby,
"I don't think your mother would want you to do that, Bobby."
Knowing his mother, Melissa wasn't at all sure that she wouldn't have approved, or even encouraged him. On the other hand, one had to say something.
As she started up the first flight of stairs, she could hear the men teasing the boy in a rather cruel way. Bobby, in fact, sounded close to tears. Melissa went back down to rescue him, and got rid of the men quickly and efficiently. Bobby was, by this time, entirely deflated. His bravado when he flourished the money had been only tentative, and what he hoped would pass for a proof of his virility was, in this most tasteless of places, taken as proof of a lack of the only kind of taste that still counted.
By the time that they reached the first, rather rickety, landing, Bobby brightened and said,
"You'll be safe tonight. He gimme a dollar to watch the building."
It took a little while to discover that the 'he' was Jethro. It was unusual for Jethro to engage in that sort of charity, but Melissa was glad that he had done so.
Once upstairs, Melissa took off her shoes and sat wiggling her long narrow feet as Mortimer sniffed them. This was, for her, an unusual admission of fatigue. She said to Jethro,
"Just seeing clients makes me more tired than working out at the Y and playing handball."
"You'll have to do more sit-ups."
"Oh Jets, that won't do any good. I could do sit-ups half the day and still not be immune to the sort of nervous tension and sensory overload that I get downtown. Anyhow, I saw Bobby just now, and he said you'd given him a dollar to watch the building. That was nice of you."
"He can be a good watchman. He'll stand at that second-floor bay window most of the night without getting bored. If anything happens, he'll call up to Mortimer on our landing. Mortimer will bark, and I'll wake up."
"And then you'll choose a weapon from your arsenal and charge down the stairs."
"Or shoot from the window."
"Who or what will you shoot?"
"Someone trying to set fire to the building. It's an obvious firetrap."
Melissa was used to this kind of thinking, and, considering that it bordered on paranoia, she changed the subject.
"What've you been doing today?"
"I found something that might be rather good today at Bains' Cafe."
Melissa, putting her shoes back on in preparation for argument, asked,
"Did you get in another fight?"
"Only a very minor one to make acquaintances. Not with the interesting man. I doubt that he likes to fight."
"But those poeple are all dangerous. I think Sergeant Evans is just using you."
"He pays for value received. The point is that the police have to start with the crime and try to find the missing criminal. That's hard. I can find the criminals just by going to certain bars, and then find out what crimes they've committed."
"Do you do that by catching them alone and twisting their arms?"
"It's easy to guess the kind of crime a man's committed. I find out from Evans what crimes of that sort are still unsolved, and then I start narrowing down."
"There must be thousands of unsolved burglaries."
"Sure. But, the more serious the crime, the shorter the list. If I can find a wanted murderer, I'll make something. In the meantime, I'm making nickles and dimes by fingering obvious small-time crooks. I don't know exactly what they've done, but Evans has his men pick them up and beat them. They almost always confess to something."
"Some day, they'll figure out who's informing on them and get you."
"That's why we have Mortimer, and Bobby down below."
Melissa let out her breath in discouragement. Jethro's obsession with security might not be paranoia after all. But it hardly improved her spirits to realize that violent thugs might set fire to the building some night. Thinking that she might as well know the worst, she asked,
"Who did you meet this time?"
"The boys at the bar were discussing a friend named 'Shadow' who's just been arrested for bank robbery. Since I was pretending to have just been released from jail myself, I was allowed to take an interest and make occasional comments. The man who interested me said that Shadow's mistake was that he didn't wheel and kill the bank guard."
"He sounds like a delightful individual."
"Of all those men, he's the only one who could pass for a manufacturer's representative or an accountant. He's a middle-sized man named Al with light brown hair and unusually blue eyes. He said that it's important to kill the guard because he's the only professional witness. A good lawyer, Al said, can confuse the fuck out of the rest."
"That may have been very insightful, but what good does it do you?"
"I think Al may speak from experience. I'm going to get to know him."
"And then turn him in for the bank robberies and murders he's committed?"
"I'm sure he won't divulge any information of that nature. But I might get a line on his next job."
"You should paint more and inform less."
"I can't sell my paintings, but I can sell information."
"I hate it. I'm not going to stay here if you keep doing it."
"Well, it may not be right for you, but it's a relatively peaceful and restful occupation for me."