"She made all of them," said the man standing just behind me. Daylight came into the dark basement through a single small window, and a flickering fluorescent bulb supplemented it only anemically. Innumerable miniatures were squirreled away here, staring out at us now with their lifeless eyes. "While in her twenties. A young woman, much like you."
I paused, listening, but not to him or his breathing behind me. The heaviness of basement dust and darkness magnified the clear sound of water dripping slowly in the background. I decided it was coming from a faucet upstairs, or maybe through an open window, off the broad leaves of one of the sycamores I passed in the sprawling, stately garden on my way in. The paper-thin bark of their trunks was moody, like fingers tracing clouds. They belonged on the banks of a river.
But we'd been in a drought for some time, and ambient humidity was zilch all over the city, even up here where the moguls lived. If the trees were dripping condensation, it meant excessive watering in the garden around them. Dripping water in these times was simply irresponsible. Each drip was a nail scraping slate.
"Amazing," I responded, feeling many things other than amazement. I wasn't looking at him, but I knew from upstairs his eyes would be large and milky, their red beds inflamed, each blink a momentary curtain closing on a peculiar eclipse. I felt them focused on my back. I felt the height of him, looming. Tall, angular. Precise. Old.
Another thing they didn't realize was that Dorothea — or this exhaustive collection centered on her life and work that Dr. Luvid said he'd acquired from eBay and elsewhere over the last five years — ever existed. That's what he had hired me to help fix. He'd scoured the world to gobble up everything he could find connected to her, buying all the rights along the way. Now, having obtained a monopoly on what she'd produced, he wanted someone — me, apparently — to write about her art and finally give her the recognition she deserved.
Something about the project seemed a little off-kilter, but I was still working out what it was. It's not like I was routinely hired to write about long-dead ingenues. I looked at my notes.
"So what you're saying is that you have spent the last five years collecting these hundreds of little figurines, which you do not think are Ms. Carmichael's most impressive work?" My writing pad punctuated my words with its loosely flapping pages, making it seem fussy, surrounded as I was by tiny, motionless paws and fins and flippers. I relaxed my arm, letting it and the pad dangle down at my side. The room's stillness was settling into me. I tried to bring my attention here, away from the dripping water or the thought of the doctor's milky eyes.
When I did, I had to concede the menagerie was impressive, though at first it seemed more cartoonish and strange. Each animal was the same 2.5 inches long, and monochrome in a manner suggesting a certain indifference to reality: green wolves, purple penguins, blue crows, red stingrays. But on closer examination, my appreciation deepened. Their unique forms each portrayed a different animal, and there were hundreds of them, all the same small size, concealable in the palm of a hand. Our planet's most ferocious predators at eye level with our most vulnerable prey. And Luvid had spread them all out on his basement shelves, so that oversized tapeworms and undersized koala bears had the same view of the dark basement stairs.
"It's kind of like Noah's ark?" I asked, suppressing the urge to add, meets the Care Bears? Truth was, I was struggling a bit with knowing what to ask. It had to do with the intensity of emotion seeping out of the man behind me, and my discomfort with it. This is probably why I haven't really made it yet as a journalist. When peoples' feelings are involved, I get puny.
I fumbled around some more, pawing at a collection of nocturnal mammals. Lavender skunk, mauve opossum. I turned to a shelf that seemed more tropically themed: tapir, panther, toucan, spider monkey. Each exactly the wrong color.
The good doctor went on. "As you can see, she didn't much care about color, but she cared intensely about anatomy. She aspired to make every animal known to man's naked eye. This was in the 1930's, of course. She made her task easier by identifying similarly-proportioned animals of varying size and coloration, and creating a single piece to represent the lot. Then she left it to you to see what you wanted: is it a Californian pocket mouse? A Mexican pocket mouse? Maybe even a rock pocket mouse?"
I was, in fact, holding a green critter in my hand, from the rodent case. "But you know it's a pocket mouse? That's impressive. I just see a rat."
He assumed that contemplative look that can only be arranged on old faces with much to contemplate. "Yes. I've taken to keying them out."
Like a nature walk, only in your basement.
"She relied on this technique particularly with smaller animals, like rodents, and also many species of frogs, insects, some birds, arachnids. I think she suspected her audience would neither know nor care whether the Merriam shrew could really be confused for the Arctic shrew. All the same, even using this technique, she had to make several dozen beetles, and they are magnificent. Look here."
He took me to one of the better-groomed corners of the basement, where a curio cabinet had been set up to honor a plethora of beetles. It was a lot of invertebrate for my taste. I found myself working to distinguish the little beasts one from another in order to confirm Luvid's account. But this involved peering too closely at too many little, creepy, bitey parts, rendered, I supposed, in ceramic and wire. It wasn't a place where I wanted to spend much of time.
"And here we have our Coleoptera friends. Of course she limited herself to the adults, here and elsewhere — larvae are notoriously difficult to tell apart. Sometimes it helps to focus on the mandibles. See?" he said, removing a beetle and placing it in my hand. Its heft surprised me. A moment later my hand sprung up as he took it back. "This particular beetle is, in real life, commercially valuable. See here?"
He held it a little too close to my face, but I couldn't move backward without bumping into the cabinet. He was standing really close to me, too, but didn't seem concerned. I wondered, do doctors have different perceptions of social distance, given they spend so much time treating bodies as objects, not people?
"Flesh and brains," he continued, and then brought the creature down and stared his big eyes into mine. "Flesh and brains. The Dermestes maculatas is an excellent consumer of both of those. Used in taxidermy and forensics."
He turned away to another cabinet before I had a proper chance to respond. The old man continued to prattle on and on about Carmichael's achievements, particularly as regards her treatment of felines and tropical fish, but I found it increasingly difficult to listen. It wasn't just the prospect of flesh-eating beetles. A series of questions were forming themselves in my mind, and, while I may not be terribly good at this stuff, I was good enough by then to know I had better write them down as they came. Later, I looked over my notes, and this is what I found:
Why does he care?
"How many are there, Joshua?" I asked instead, cringing, as always, at the awkwardness of referring to a medical doctor by his first name, and then a second time at the fact I found it so awkward. What was I, twelve? Unreasonable deference would not represent me well, and I wanted my customer to see me as at least his equal. I'd heard it helps with price.
He nodded, like maybe he thought the question meant that the magnitude of Carmichael's achievement was finally dawning on me.
"My current count is 1,374. But wait until you hear her music."
Dr. Luvid moved spryly for his seventy-plus years. All the same, there were many corners to angle around down here, table after table, shelf after shelf. And one had to be careful. The animals were fragile.
He was out of sight when I heard something fall. "You okay?" I asked, not too worried, and not eager to follow him into a tight corner.
He didn't respond, but a moment later I heard a crackling sound come from the corner he'd retreated to, and then recognized it as old vinyl released from exile. Syrupy strings swept out and a lilting melody filled the room. A voice on the cusp of womanhood carried it.
My dreams are in your arms, I wake to find them
Too far and so I run to bind them
To my heart, my beating heart, is yours, it's true...
When the song stopped, and Dr. Luvid emerged from behind a stack of shelves, something clarified for me. I saw the faraway look on his face, the angle of his shoulders. This was a man transported.
This was a man in love.
He actually struggled to keep up his end of the conversation after that. He was like a radio station fading in and out, interrupted by the static of incongruity.
"A voice of the angels," he said, barely audible.
"When was it recorded?" I asked, pen in hand. I could have flattered his taste by cooing too, but those beetles were at my back and I wasn't feeling comfortable.
"I don't know. Did you hear that trumpet? It sounds like a solo I heard once on Count Basie's stage."
"In the forties?" I was trying to do the math.
"And the lyric — can't you just see her performing Gershwin?"
"Do you have a picture of her?" I asked.
"She looked just like that voice. Crystal clear. Pure. Her hair golden, smooth, her eyes bright."
"That's a beautiful description," I said. Why don't you write about her yourself, I thought. I needed some air.
"She is like Judy Garland meets Audrey Hepburn," he said. I suppressed an eye-roll. "Meets Shirley Temple." I looked at him then. He wasn't joking. He was far away.
His face was full of smiles within smiles. Smiles from the present, and the past, from fact and fiction, folded into each other, compressing, reforming, as ores made in the belly of the planet.
And then he turned all of those smiles onto me. "She was such an artist. And her story so tragic. You can relate, can't you? I've read some of your work. You're an artist too."
"My pen just stopped working," I lied. "I need to go grab another one from my bag." And I turned and ran up the stairs, leaving the old man behind.
I paused in the foyer and tried to collect myself. A little embarrassed at having behaved so badly. Skittish. It was unbecoming for any writer, even the not-an-experienced-journalist sort, even a petite woman, to run away from her story. This is a collector. No more, no less. It could be stamps, it could be hunting rifles, it could be women's handbags. He is a doctor with deep roots in the community. He or someone he knows probably operated on several members of my family. He is not going to attack me and lock me in his unliving basement, and keep me as his next little pet.
After the visit, I walked up the steps to the landing of my apartment, pausing for a moment to listen to Stephen's progress on his aria, below. The basement of Dr. Luvid's house contained the accumulated possessions of a dead stranger. The basement of the apartment building where I lived had a living opera singer. Of course, I didn't own the building or the person. Luvid believed he owned both.
I wasn't so sure.
Luvid had hired me to write a piece on Carmichael that would become the first in a series of works to draw attention to her magical legacy. That was his intention. Mine was murkier. The truth was, I was just looking for something to do that would bring in a little money and give me a breather from the novel I'd been locked up with for months. This had worked in the past — odd writing jobs together with part-time customer service gigs paid my rent most months. My attraction was pecuniary. I didn't feel passionate about the Carmichael story — it came to me via another writer, Ernesto, who had seen an ad in some obscure location and was a little put out when Luvid called his work too "gruff."
"You want to waste your time on an easy gig that will never get you anywhere, and get paid decently for the trouble? This is for you," Ernesto had told me over the din of the pub we met up in sometimes with friends.
My natural curiosity was aroused during the first phone call I'd had with Luvid. I'd never heard of Dorothea Carmichael, of course, nor of Dr. Luvid, though I'd since confirmed he was who he represented himself to be. But it seemed an unusual situation, and I smelled a story. I was intrigued that Carmichael had so inspired this old man. That he claimed to have a lock on all her papers and work only intrigued me more. He had never met her, had no family connection. He'd picked up an old record at a yard sale and hunted down the voice I'd heard during my visit. He said she was an artist, a musician, a beauty. She was a gifted young singer until a cow kicked her in the throat. Then she directed her talent towards her visual art. A few years later she was dead from a fall from a scaffolding during construction of a granary. Between the two events, she had made the figurines. She should have been a star, a phenom. She should have been a champion of vivacious young women everywhere. She should have toured the world, spreading light and song and making great art. She should have lived the life of little girls' dreams, as well as old mens' fantasies.
Then, there was the story about how she came to the figurines. "Not a zoologist, as you might expect," Luvid had said. As I'd never in all my life expected anyone to be a zoologist, especially not a farmgirl in the '30s, I only smiled. "She came from Illinois. They grew bird seed. Millet, sunflower, whatever they could for the feed distributor. From what her brother's widow told me, they were basically sharecroppers. Too many financial pressures. The father was a bit of a monster. Expected the kids to fall into line, help with the family business. But Dorothea couldn't do that, at least, not the way her father expected her to. She was too spirited. He wanted her in the threshing room, where they processed the harvest. But it was terribly dusty work and gave Dorothea a cough. So she begged her father to let her take charge of the livestock instead. She did this alone, milking and singing to the animals to pass the time. That's when she started developing her voice."
"How do you know all this?" I asked, being the fact-checking professional.
"Her journals. She kept journals."
This got my attention. What better way to piece together the dead woman's inner life than to have her journals? "Oh, she did? Oh, that's great. I had no idea your source materials included private journals. Awesome. I'll want to read them for the piece, of course."
"They aren't for the public," he said. No explanation.
"Oh," I said. Weakly. I wasn't sure how to proceed. But rent still needed to be paid. I agreed to meet with him and start going through the other material.
Now, after that first visit I was back at home, listening to Stephen's aria, or Mozart's or Puccini's, or whomever you wanted to credit with it. And I was thinking: It's art when it moves someone. But moves them to what?
Inside my apartment, I set the keys on the counter and flipped on a light. My little songbird, Peacock, rustled inside her cage. I generally kept the cage door open, but Peacock's primary hobby was tending her nest so she was generally inside it all the same.
I checked the thermostat, confirming it was set at 63 degrees. I like it a little cool inside during winter. I like including the seasons in my indoor life. Which is to say, almost all of my life.
I went into the kitchen and drank a big glass of water. Then I grabbed an apple and a beer and headed for my typewriter. Yes, it's the twenty-first century. And, yes, I still do my best work on the typewriter. Maybe it would help me write Dorothea's story.
I pulled the metal folding chair out with a screech and tried to get the cushion to stay in the position I liked best as I sat down on it. Then, as I often did, I turned and looked out the window to my left.
The city at dusk was at its most wild. Birds, everywhere, making hurried flights. Pedestrians at a quick trot on their way home, in nearly every direction. Lights in windows, food smells wafting. Cars, concentrated in their courses, counting inches between bumpers. And the changing of the sky, colors made vivid by acrid air. As if the sky itself were slowly considering the meaning of the day: was it golden? Or fuschia? Or teal?
I faced my desk again. I glanced briefly at the framed article I kept above it — the one time I'd sold something to a national magazine, and the reason Luvid hired me — took a deep breath, and started to write.
I wasn't writing about Carmichael.
It was writing about Luvid.
I got up a few hours later and heated up some frozen pizza. I had dribs and drabs, and an outline. But I could feel the story here. The arc of it. The twists. I would have to talk with him again, to get more.
The next day I cobbled together an outline for the Carmichael piece. It had holes, so I called up Luvid to arrange another meeting. I would have texted almost anyone else, but I didn't figure Luvid for a big texter. Call me an ageist. It went to voicemail, so I left a message:
"Hello Dr. — Joshua. This is Rosa Santalvo. The story is starting to take shape and I'll need to check some facts against your materials. My schedule is flexible, let me know what works for you."
I got a return call in three minutes.
"Miss Santalvo! Yes. Why don't you come over for dinner tonight. Do you have plans?"
"Excellent! Eight o'clock!" Then he said something about getting paged and hung up.
I stared at the phone. Dammit. He doesn't know I'm a gluten-free vegan who doesn't eat nightshades. And also, more to the point — was this a dinner date? The absurdity of it actually made me smile. Then I thought about how awkward that would be. Think, Rosa, think. Do I call him back and clarify matters? "Hello Joshua. You know this isn't a date, right? Obviously? Oh, good. That's what I thought. By the way, I'll probably eat first. OK, see you at 8." Or do I go along and hope for the best?
When I showed up at his house, he greeted me with an outrageous bow from the waist. It was obvious he'd had the meal catered. Who does that? "You'll have to forgive me," he said. "I ended up in surgery most of the day." He didn't look like someone who'd spent the day covered in blood. He looked like someone dressed for dinner. A nice dinner. Involving a big hunk of dead animal, fresh rolls and, fortunately, a bunch of vegetables.
I was wearing my fat jeans and most comfortable shoes, and what I hoped passed these days for a "professional" blazer and top. Most of my outfit was from the Goodwill. I sat a few lit candles down from the doctor underneath a chandelier that looked appropriate for a palace ballroom. I was not too distracted by the awkwardness of the occasion to notice that water was still dripping from the leaves outside.
"I'm trying to work out the timeline for Carmichael's life. It's impressive she got a record deal while still working on the farm. What year was that again? And the album you played for me — where did you say you found it?"
I set my pen down and turned to my plate. I decided to risk the sweet potatoes, hoping they weren't buttered. I was a couple of bites in, swirling my food around in my mouth to try to detect any bovine mammary secretions, when I realized Luvid hadn't responded to my questions. I looked up and found him watching me with those milky eyes, his head cocked to one side, a small smile stretched across his face. The intensity of his gaze locked my stomach up.
"What?" I hated the question as soon as I'd asked it, and hated his response even more. His eyebrows went way, way up, Donald Sutherland-style, inscrutable amusement splashing its way across his face.
"Nothing, Miss Santalvo. I am only delighted at your diligence. So focused on your art! But why don't we save the questions for after we've finished off our meals and shared a bottle of wine. It's been a long day for me and you seem to be a little tense too."
It took me several seconds to discretely stifle my gag reflex and swallow. I know he said other things, too, but mostly all I really heard was that he was trying to get me relaxed. Jesus Christ. I didn't imagine Bob Woodward often had to fend off a seduction to write about Watergate...but then, I was no Woodward and this story would not change the course of the nation. I started fumbling around under the table at my phone. "Oh, so sorry! It's a text message from my sweetie. Let me just type out a quick response." I could feel his eyes oozing at me. But I kept my focus. I set an alarm to go off in ten minutes. It would sound like an emergency phone call and then I could artfully terminate my visit. I pressed Start with ceremony: "Send! There!" Then I started pushing green beans around on my plate.
"So you were saying you found the record about five years ago?" I asked. I didn't look up to read his face. I didn't want to see him figure out that he wasn't going to get what he wanted — whatever that was. I decided I didn't care. Just the facts, sir.
That night, I had a weird dream. I'm standing in front of the dry and splintered wood of an ancient, massive, knobless redwood door. I pause there to put my hand against it, to feel the fibers of its rough bark. I'm aware that this slab of wood was part of what had once been a magnificent being, everliving until it was felled, at home in the heavens, making its own clouds. People chanted prayers in its honor, guarded its kin with their lives.
Now, it's a corpse. I push on it. It moves with my weight. I leave it open behind me, and make my way down a dark stairwell. I close my eyes to the darkness to heighten my other senses. There it is — the sound of dripping water.
I know where I'm going, though I couldn't have said where. When the air grows sharp in my mouth with the cold tang of spring water, I open my eyes to see light reflecting off the peculiar gleam of a domed chamber's translucent bricks. A fountain stirs a stone-lined pool. From an enormous pelted chair, a figure in shadows raises a hand and hums a line from Carmichael's song: My dreams are in your arms, I wake to find them. His rings glisten. I hear a scratch, and then a gramophone begins the song.
He drops his chin and pinches a mimed conductor's wand to his thumb, swooping it archly in time.
A cold draft -- perhaps from the door I've left open upstairs — catches me and briefly cramps the muscles of my neck. Next, I'm thinking about the posture of sphinxes, settled under a starry desert sky. Part lion, part human, all mystery. Then I feel something cool on my arm, and look down to see the inevitable beetle crawling there. "You are not attractive to it as food," whispers the shadowy figure in my ear. "Not in its current form, nor yours. Come sit down here with me."
I opened my eyes into the darkness of my bedroom. I listened carefully but heard no water dripping. No one's breath wafted in my ear. If there were bugs in my bed, they were of a different kind. Instead, I heard only my heart, racing, and the quiet hum of the refrigerator in the other room, and the distant sound of traffic.
I turned on the lamp by my bed. I grabbed the note pad I kept there and the pink pencil I picked up from my favorite sea food restaurant: Johnnie's Crab Shack Bistro. I wrote down the words that came to me, barely awake:
She is his, all his. He doesn't want to share. But he would like another.
And then I worked to slow my breath.
I didn't work on the story for a while. I got distracted with other things. I found a gig writing copy for a motorbike-racing company. It involved a succession of noisy, hot days watching people drive in circles. The good life. I told myself: I'm working a different beat.
Then the day came that I looked at the calendar and realized I'd promised Luvid something by Friday. And that, scruples and anxieties aside, there was still the matter of rent.
I went to my desk to get back to work on Carmichael's story, but somewhere along the way I forgot again about the deadline. A couple hours later I realized I'd been staring out the open window. I'd not written a word, but there, in front of a scraggly juniper bush, a cat was licking its right front paw. It was a tabby. Fully cat, no human. It didn't know I was watching it. For a long time, I didn't either. But, minds being what they are, I found myself taking the cat into my confidence. I didn't know what I had to say until the words were out of my mouth and the animal had darted away.
"A menagerie of ingenues," I said. "He's a collector."
I worked on the story for hours after that, and that night, I went there, uninvited. The garden was barely lit with starlight. Wet bushes rubbed against my jeans and water dripped from leaves overhead on the long way up to the front door. It was a big door, imposing, made of some thick wood with iron embellishments. Maybe redwood. I wouldn't know.
I knocked on his door with the big metal knocker, larger than both my hands together. It seemed pretentious, and made a noise far bigger than I felt, but my own hand could not have knocked loud enough without bruising. I dislike doorbells: they always misrepresent me with their prancing tones.
He answered in khakis, loafers, and a linen shirt. I skipped the preliminaries, not extending my hand. It was too clammy from the apprehension I felt. I knew I had to get this over with before I chickened out.
"She never existed," I blurted.
"What was that?" He shuddered a little. I'd startled him.
The light from his porch was brighter than the foyer behind him, so I could watch his face change, and change again. It was one of those moments where time extends itself in strange directions. I felt I was in some tropical rainforest, with the water dripping slowly off the leaves behind me, and the distant moons of his eyes staring down. My back was to this wide expanse of foliage, where any animal could have been hiding, pacing, anxious to have a little excitement. In front of me was the man with his basement full of animals. I looked at him, taller than me, well-groomed, but struggling to carry the weight of his years. The incongruity of skipping generations, lifetimes really, just in order to connect with another person — that was part of the mash-up. Spanning so many decades.
I watched the confusion and offense and embarrassment crossing his face, and I thought about how we were having two very different experiences, even as we were wedged together between the wildness of the dark garden and the silent, rigid menagerie beneath us. I just kept seeing all the animals, the living and the fantastic, all smashed together, and we were there too, and somehow in my mind it all came out as chimera and griffin and minotaur and mermaid. Manticore, and sphinx. Animals, joined unnaturally, surviving in the imagination, if nowhere else, pacing our lives, unnerving us under the black-blue, starry sky.
I took a deep breath, and tread out into that night. "I said you made her up. I mean, maybe there was a person with that name alive at the time you say, but she's not the one with the album, and she didn't make all the creatures in your basement."
He seemed to be struggling to orient himself, and trying to build a head of steam. "You don't know what you're talking about."
I nodded. "That's what you were counting on, wasn't it," I said. "Me not knowing. Me not doing my homework. Me being, you know, young and naÏve."
He looked at me then, and I think we finally saw each other for the first time. There he was, lonely and old, with too much money, and the tastes to match, stuck like the rest of us in this garish, numbing, wearisome world. He was looking for beauty and life. So he turned to fiction. An understandable impulse. And now he wanted someone to write it all out for him to make it more real.
"This is quite a surprise, Miss San--"
"Rosa. I'm just Rosa, like you are just Joshua. That's all." I smiled, then, in what I hoped was an encouraging but forthright way. I am not part of your fantasy, I wanted to say. We are both here, right here, such as we are. Might as well make the most of it.
He was gaping a little, and I was afraid he might shut the door on me, so I pulled out my phone, saying "Check this out." Then I sang into it, badly: My dreams are in your arms, I wake to find them. The song-recognition app took about fifteen seconds, and then a cheery bubble popped onto its little, lifeless screen. "See? An obscure singer named Angela Baker. Best I can tell, she was a black woman, mother of four. She died at 47 of tuberculosis just before the war on the streets of Chicago. Still an inspiring back story, but perhaps not quite what you had in mind?"
Now the look on his face was shock. "So you didn't know that part?" I asked. "That was the easy part. The harder part was placing those figurines, because the world is literally crawling with them. I guess they were popular among vocational training programs in the '70's?"
Luvid doesn't play poker well. The emotions were crossing his face now faster than I could follow them. He was a lot of different people there, elbowing each other about. A bit of lion. A bit of snake. A puppy, wanting to be held. When he managed to speak, all he mustered was "No, no, that doesn't make sense."
"OK, then, I bet those journals will clear it up."
The water was dripping again off the sycamore. We practically live in a desert, for crying out loud. There's no place for such selfishness. The reservoirs up in the hills are little more now than shallow puddles under thick rings of barren, thirsty bank.
And yet, some of us need extra help to make our worlds places we want to inhabit. I took a deep breath in the air, which was clean, and fresh. He watched me, saw me settle into what was there.
"I don't have them," he finally said. He held himself asymmetrically, like he'd strained a rib. He looked like he needed to sit down. "They don't exist."
He turned, then, and went inside. I hesitated for only a moment. Then I followed him in.