Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.
Chapter 6: The Titan Club
Occasionally, in passing, Cassandra had noticed a disturbing couple in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. While these sightings piqued her interest, they were so rare, that the man and woman seemed like raindrops too widely scattered to ever build into a downpour or, like sporadic signposts, teasing you, but ultimately leading to nothing. As a result, she was convinced that each time she saw them was the last. Initially, they caught her eye because of their bohemianism and glaring age gap. He appeared to be late forties (although an aggravated lifestyle may have prematurely aged him.) They looked European and he strongly resembled Klaus Kinski, an up and coming actor, who’d impressed her, no end. A sinewy five feet, nine inches, his searingly intelligent eyes, embedded in weather-beaten skin, spoke of harsh vicissitudes, which hadn’t yet exterminated their light. “More power to your spirit,” Cassandra reflected, unable to imagine his background, as everything about his appearance confounded any easy explanation. Eventually, she decided that he was the missing spouse of that desperately, downtrodden migrant woman, in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo. Appearing decades older, than her thirty-two years, Lange’s modern-day Madonna looked irrevocably crushed by life, brooding, chin in hand; an Atlas to her seven, starving children, some of whom shyly nestled against her, hiding from the camera.
At age fifty-three, the painter, Peter Paul Rubens, married sixteen year-old Helena Fourment (his deceased first wife’s niece), whom ‘Kinski’s’ partner, strongly resembled. She had the same blond, rosy-cheeked imperturbability, minus Fourment’s physical voluptuousness. The facial resemblance, underscored by a pronounced, sweet tranquility, was startling, except that this ‘Helena’ was skinny, which would have nauseated Rubens. Cassandra was also struck by the fact that Helena invariably lagged a few steps behind her partner, and more on the stormy days. Further compounding the odd tableau was the fact that she never saw them alone or with friends. They were simply always together; a silent, slow-paced, perennially jean-clad, two-person parade.
About seven months ago, to Cassandra’s horror, Kinski and Helena descended into destitution. At first, she thought she was mistaken. But upon closer examination, destitution seemed a new development as they now clutched two suitcases and their appearance was seedier. Additionally, the confines of their wandering had widened from a short stretch connecting the Park and Greene Street to a radius of a mile; although, always within Greenwich Village. Sometimes, Cassandra noticed those in whom you could discern a future state encroaching into their present one. Similarly, thinking back to her first sightings of Kinski and Helena, before they hit bottom, they’d already, in a sense, fallen through the cracks. It was as if a cloud or aura of ruin already clung to them (just as success radiantly encircles some), dispersing its particles about their person and the space within which they passively and accommodatingly moved.
There were always vagrants around the neighborhood and, of course, more in Washington Square Park, from new faces to the regulars, faithfully planted on the same street, proclaiming fierce ownership. But the Kinskis were exceptional, for their situation disintegrated before her eyes. The Kinskis fell through the cracks, as she’d watched, increasingly aware of a direct correlation between her own financial situation and the collision of their paths. The more acrimonious her fights with her landlord, and his service of eviction notices, the more inevitably and repeatedly she ran into them making them wandering harbingers of what she’d half determined, yet half pleaded, would never become her own reality. She thought it was funny that, while she’d never seen an ounce of affection exchanged between Kinski and Helena, still, an utterly unbreakable bond united them. It was as if their smaller, myriad, but no less vitally necessary, components of affection forming the relationship’s cement, had been sacrificed for one big expenditure; The Relationship Itself, an entity so overwhelming, it drowned out everything else.
Early one overcast Saturday morning, as Cassandra raced to an appointment, for which she was late, Helena shot past, alone and sobbing. That Helena was alone surprised Cassandra more than her tears, although the two were probably directly related. “You must have made your break while he was asleep, otherwise he’d never let you get away. Run like hell!” Cassandra urged her, mentally.
Recently, their suitcases had been replaced by numerous plastic bags. The other night as Cassandra returned home from her temp job at a bridal magazine, she passed them on the corner of her block. She couldn’t hear what he said, but Kinski gestured, autocratically expounding a point. Helena hung on his words, as Cassandra hung on his inaudible, but unshakeable conviction. If all your possessions have either been eliminated or reduced to plastic, Cassandra wondered, how sure could you be of anything, unless it was that you were trapped in a downward spiral? Each time she ran into them now, their passivity struck her most. Whether walking or slumped, patiently, as they were at an outdoor café last night, an intransigent spot of solemnity, amidst the enveloping noise and joviality, they displayed an overwhelming air of resignation to a crushing weight, rather than of the anger necessary to wage war against that fate. This puzzled her because they were fairly young, especially Helena.
One day, seeing them slumped on a bench, staring vacantly and, as usual, making no contact with each other (other than through their touching shoulders), she tried to envision herself doing nothing for long periods and simply couldn’t.
As Cassandra left her apartment building one morning, with her umbrella, Kinski stormed into view, at the end of the block. Cornered, he paced. Then, spotting Helena, he bolted to the near corner, as she appeared. Cassandra was still too far away to hear what he was saying, but he looked as if he was about to snap. For a smallish man, his anger was towering, radiating from him, like a toxic halo. Suddenly, he raised his hand above his head, biblically, fingers spread as if grasping something elusive, and Cassandra felt a sick certainty that there, in public, he was going to hit Helena. She almost felt the blow herself, as he extended his hand for several leaden seconds. He smashed his fist downward, savagely cleaving the air and Helena’s imaginary extension. Cassandra wanted Helena to oppose him, verbally, or, God forbid, physically. But Helena froze, as Kinski unleashed further inaudible censure. Then, wordlessly, she wheeled around and walked back around the corner. Kinski paused, so angry, that he simply couldn’t decompress. He started after her, but instead retreated to the corner payphone. After a brief conversation, head lowered, he loped off, menacingly, in the opposite direction.
That image of Helena, silently buckling and backing down, stayed with Cassandra long afterwards. When Helena ultimately refused to act upon whatever mutinous impulses she was entertaining (and had toyed with), submissively retreating as ordered, it was habit settling decisively into the breach. Cassandra wondered how she could tolerate such abuse, especially as what she’d witnessed couldn’t have been the first occurrence. Helena, herself, seemed to have wondered the exact same thing, for a perilous interval. Her instant submission implied that Kinski’s abuse was sickeningly routine. Delayed knee-jerk submission today, however, could evolve into a greater delay tomorrow and outright refusal in the future. Kinski sensed as much, hence his need to make sure that her mouth bit was permanently in place.
* * *
Cassandra had always enjoyed studying this club on sixtieth street and Fifth Avenue, whenever she passed, because it resembled a prototypical ‘New Yorker’ cartoon. All of its dimensions were expansive, from the size of the windows, and the corporeality of its inner gloom, to the girth of the titans basking within, on their equally titanic cigars.
The other night she walked by, glanced at it, ritually, and then pushed the button for the light. Prepared to wait, the light unexpectedly turned green, right away, and as she crossed, the sight that finally registered, abruptly stopped her. There, seated near the corner window, was Kinski engaged in conversation with an elegant, older man. As the club was always dimly lit, the combined factors of its pervasive gloom plus the sheer impossibility of this picture proclaimed her error. Aware that she was staring and risked being seen by them, she left. But she had to first determine whether this was Kinski; or, rather, that it wasn’t.
She walked half a block away. As she approached the window again, she saw the older man, first. Attractive, sixties, with luxuriant, white hair, he had a long, distinguished-looking, jowly face. But, more striking than his attractiveness was his adamancy, as he shook his head, faintly, yet persistently, at Kinski. No more forceful exertion was required, he telegraphed, there being no doubt he’d ultimately prevail. She looked from him to the recipient of his disapproval. “My God, it’s definitely Kinski and in a suit and tie, too,” she thought. Unconscious of anything as deliberate as a plan, she crossed to the other side of the street. There, a darkened alcove situated diagonally across the street, preceding the club’s entrance, enabled her to watch, in almost total obscurity.
Just as she’d had enough and stepped out of the darkness to leave, Kinski emerged from the club, alone. He paused, scanning the street. He came towards her, with his head down, and walked by, without seeing her. She immediately started after him. But just before he reached the corner, his companion overtook him, in a taxi, and stopping, they resumed their conversation. While they spoke, she crossed back to the other side of the street, which gave her a third chance to see his face, as she approached. She kept walking and as she looked back once more, she was half grateful to see him getting into the taxi, thereby pre-empting her further spying on him. “Just as well,” she thought, watching with curiosity as their taxi drove past her. Neither man looked at her as they passed.
Aside from a relative, who else could Kinski’s companion have been? A friend? She’d never seen him with anyone other than ‘Helena.’ An employer? If he were an employer, why was Kinski destitute? But their meeting, especially at that club, indicated a pre-existing relationship. That Kinski could even be admitted to such a sanctum meant that, appearance aside, it might not be that alien an environment.
It wasn’t until the next day that it struck her that, in her endless speculation about Kinski, she’d neglected Helena. “Why was she excluded from the meeting? Had he injured her? Had she been unable to keep pace with his newly exalted status? Had he, an overzealous parvenu, engineered the break, shedding any remnants of that desperate previous life, as completely as a snake sheds its skin? Again, she doubted this, preferring to think that former ties, especially one as all-encompassing as Helena, could not be swept away, that neatly or completely.
One day after work, she went to the Museum of Modern Art to look at its new acquisition by Clyfford Still, and as she entered, Kinski walked past her. As he passed, his head was turned toward the attractive, older man from the club. She froze. “Not possible!” she thought. Though the street was crowded, he effortlessly maintained a small space around him, the result of people’s automatic, unwavering homage to his menace. As he walked to the corner, he pulled out a package of cigarettes.
At Fifth Avenue, the two men separated and Kinski, unhesitatingly, turned left. The crowd on Fifth was sufficiently dense to enable her to keep tabs on him, without detection. After another block, he crossed to the east side of Fifth. She remained on the opposing side. He walked a few more blocks and then turned right towards the ‘Titan Club.’ She waited, until she saw him enter. This brief glimpse underscored his rapidly expanding importance. Today, he’d entered the club alone.
Feeling thoroughly confused, she went back to the Modern, certain only that she would definitely tell David that night. Things were surprisingly pleasant and a friendship was growing. But, she knew that if they got back together, as he kept urging, nothing would have fundamentally changed and all of their differences and fighting would immediately rage.
They’d finished dinner and were lingering over coffee, when, to her surprise, she heard herself blurt out, “Okay, this will sound weird.”
Then she launched into Kinski’s journey from borderline destitution, through complete destitution, concluding with his present level, which indefinably fused nebulous responsibility with dizzyingly expanding mobility. David simply stared at her after she’d finished
“All right, wait. Tell me this. How did he go from being a bum to whatever he is now … a museum patron?” David threw out, acidly.
“See why you shouldn’t have told him?” she scolded herself.
“I don’t think he ever really was a bum. I think that was a previous assignment for-”
“For whom?” he pounced, accusatively. “For whom?”
“I don’t know, but he has a partner. Anyway I think that assignment was followed by this. Whatever this is.”
“Gee, you have all the answers, don’t you?”
“No, David. I have none of the answers. I’m searching for them.”
* * *
She rarely saw Kinski and Helena around her neighborhood. Now, she only saw Kinski, fleetingly and alone. The only thing approximating any predictability was the soaring and increasingly limited confines of his movements. He now inhabited – “Ah-ah-ah, seemed, Cassandra!” David reprimanded her, in her imagination. – Okay, she conceded, he now seemed to inhabit a rarified sphere of extreme wealth and privilege, bordered by the Titan Club and the Modern, joined by a short strip of Fifth Avenue. She was almost resigned to the fact that she’d never get answers to her many questions. Her speculation would have been fanned into a flame, if she’d known that one day, just before she passed the museum, Kinski and Helena slipped into its annex, next to the main entrance, for a meeting concerning an upcoming Abstract Expressionist exhibit.