“Notice the sensuous curve of the breast.”
The whirr of the slide projector didn’t cover up the snicker of an immature male. Carole shot him a pitying look and continued with her lecture, “Ingres catches our eye with the sensation of movement and then holds us with a perfection of structure. As it’s three we’ll pick up where we left off next Tuesday. Let there be light, someone.”
The room brightened and the robust women fondling each other in a Turkish harem faded from view. Carole gathered her notes then headed for the door. Three students quickly surrounded her for pearls of wisdom.
She nodded, “Have a good weekend,” and raced for the elevator. Today wasn’t the day for pearls. Crawling slowly down New York University’s upper reaches, the elevator reminded Carole of mother possums, swaying under the weight of clutching children while backing down a tree. Possum and the Virginia summers of childhood receded from thought. A dangerous lurch on the fifth floor snapped Grandma’s peeling house from memory and securely in the present Carole thought one of these days this damn thing will break and I’ll plunge to my death with forty rich kids from Long Island.
The door opened onto the main floor spilling the human contents across the hall. Carole crossed Waverly Place to enter an even more decrepit elevator whose operator was in similar condition. Riley, his face a roadmap with all the lines drawn in fine purple, greeted her with an unfailing, “Top of the day to you, Professor Hanratty. Up to the art department, is it?”
“Always watch the ball games in summer, you know.” Since he was hard of hearing Riley answered with whatever he thought he heard. “You ever watch ’em?”
“Football not baseball.”
“Baseball’s an art. A real art. Nowadays everybody wants things fast. Me, I’m slow like this elevator. Love baseball, especially the Red Sox. Baseball and pinocle. Here we are.”
“Thank you, Riley.”
Directly across from the elevator loomed a spacious office, with wall-to-wall carpeting, and the large walnut desk curiously facing the elevator doors. Those doors opened and shut like the slide projectors which make up an art department’s arsenal to attack uninterested post-adolescent minds. Resembling a student hypnotized by the changing images, Fred Fowler, head of the art department, blinked each time the doors revealed another passenger. It would have made sense to close the door or turn his desk around but Freddie Fowler didn’t want to miss a thing, especially if the thing was female. The slight draft coming up the elevator shaft used to lift up their dresses but since the advent of pants barely a calf was to be seen. Still as the doors rattled, Freddie lifted his eyes and the gleam of hope burned there. Recognizing Carole’s five foot eleven inch frame, slender and straight, the corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Carole, hello. How’s the introductory course on such a hot day? The Great Neck heathens must be restless.”
“Drugged is closer to the truth. Either the heat or downs depress them to a level of fuzzed attention although a few exhibit signs of active intelligence. In fact, Fred, I’m almost enjoying the summer session. Thought I’d hate it at first.”
“Glad to hear that. Glad to hear that. I know how you feel. We gear ourselves to a semester cycle and want to race off for the summer.”
“I’m racing off to check my mail. Have a good weekend, Chief.”
God, how Fred adores being called chief but then what can you expect of a man who hangs his coat-of-arms in his office? I swear he got his Ph. D. on the social significance of paint-by-numbers. And will he ever raise his eyes above breast level? He says hello to my left tit. That guy will never give up. Carole reached into her mailbox and picked out the phone messages, backside up, spread them like a hand of bridge, closed her eyes and plucked one.
“Hi, Adele, just got back from class and got your message.”
“Hey, darlin’, what are you doing tonight?”
“Well, I was thinking of going to Rio de Janiero. On the other hand I might go to bed early.”
“Uh-huh. LaVerne and I heard about a new restaurant in the Village, a kind of feminist eatery. Thought we’d try it. Want to join us?”
“Love to. What’s the name of this place?”
“My dear, do I have to wear an Equal Rights Amendment button to get in?”
“I doubt it. Just bring money. Sisterhood may be powerful but it’s still poor.”
“Okay. What time should I come over?”
“Seven-thirty? It’ll take us a little while to get there.”
“Seven-thirty’s fine. See you then.”
“Adele hung up the black 1940’s phone and stared into her garden.
I never thought I’d live to see thirty and here I am, forty-three. Carole’s forty-four. I’ve known that woman for over twenty years. Close to a quarter of a century. Funny after all these years our friends are still trying to figure Carole out. She’s easy enough for me to read. Must be her beauty. Americans make icons out of beautiful women. Doesn’t matter what a beauty does, she’s misunderstood. Perhaps we’re all misunderstood, they just get all the attention. Adele caught herself on that deflated thought and pushed her inner conversation with more vigor. Junior philosophers have been selling the essential loneliness of life since B.C. Nobody’s understood and we’re all alone in the cold, cruel world. I don’t think people are lonely because they’re misunderstood. They’re lonely because they think they’re misunderstood. Hell, they want to be misunderstood. That way they can be irresponsible. Besides, makes ’em think they’re gifted or intelligent. Suffering in public is a genuine ambition. Ties in nicely with being misunderstood. Ha. Well, I understand Carole and she understands me. Maybe I know Carole better than I know LaVerne. Hell, I even know myself. I’m gonna put those limp philosophy departments out of business.
A piercing squack from Lester, a preening white cockatoo, shattered Adele’s triumph.
“Shut up, Lester, you got no understanding. Furthermore, you got no couth, bird.”
Lester unfurled his crown, let out another supersonic blast and relieved himself simultaneously.
“You are a filthy thing. You know that?”
If Lester knew he didn’t let on. By now the two mackaws were gossiping loudly and the toucan, mynah, and plain green parrot became interested and were contributing to the conversation.
Adele, who could never be accused of being conventional, built an enormous bird cage all along one wall of her East 71st Street garden apartment. She told everyone it was little Africa although the style was Amazon rain forest. Carole dubbed it her jungle bunny wall. Adele spent far too much money on it with LaVerne bitching at every penny and calling her a spearchuker. The rock fountain, lush foliage, and brilliant, gabby birds were more than Verne could bear. Adele gloried in her creation. A woman has to have something of her own, lovers be damned. Carole sensed this and gave her Lester Maddox, a perfectly white cockatoo. Adele, in turn, taught Lester to say, “Bwana, White Devil!” everytime a non-Black entered her apartment. The first time Carole walked in and Lester laid his big line on her she nearly had a heart attack. Lester gave Adele more satisfaction than her Ph. D. in pre-Columbian art.
Copyright © 2014 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.