Saturday, May 14, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Beanstalk Country

The Beanstalk Country (Jack and the Beanstalk)
by Julie Baumgold


Magnus, who was seven, had yet to hear the word "no." He lived with his mother on the second floor of a small apartment in a First Avenue high rise.

The ceilings were low. The walls were painted in cheery colors to suggest a light that was absent. His mother, a substitute teacher, was poor and frugal but Magnus was never denied his desires and whims. He began his days with sweet cereals and ended them with hugs and kisses in the glow of a lamp shaped like a goose.

He went to school in good sneakers and the warmest of puffy coats and scarves and mittens with a hot breakfast inside him. He always looked up at the tall buildings around him. Often he smiled, for all his memories were good.

His mother, whose coat was not so warm and whose boots were the same ones she had worn in college went off to her school with a worried expression, doing money calculations in her head.

The small family had one valuable possession, a set of Chinese Export dishes that were inherited from a great grandmother. They were hung on the wall on a wooden plate rack. Sometimes Magnus and his mother would study them together—the heavily robed Chinese warriors with gold on their swords and bows, the court women in languid poses in many layers of silk, all surrounded by lotus flowers and butterflies. They suggested another perhaps better time to Magnus's mother.

One day when Magnus returned from school his mother was dusting the plates, wrapping each in bubble plastic and putting them carefully into a carton. The carton was resting in the red wagon they used for shopping and taking things to a thrift shop.

"Why, Mama? Why?"

"I'm tired of looking at these old things."

Together they studied the empty plate rack. Magnus was thinking about how his mom had trailed her fingers over each plate before she wrapped it up.

"You can decorate some paper plates that I will like just as much."

The open carton stood in the wagon by the door until the weekend, then Magnus and his mother set out on their excursion to a fancy china shop on Madison Avenue whose windows were crammed with china bowls and plates and urns somewhat like theirs.

"We just have time for a donut," said Margaret, Magnus' mother, for the shop was not open yet.

"I'll run to the corner and you stand here with the wagon."

Along came a man in a camel's hair coat who asked Magnus what was in the wagon and if he could unwrap one of the plates.

"I'd like to have these. I'll give you this," said the man holding out a hundred dollar bill.

Before Magnus could say a word he had lifted the carton, hailed a taxi and sped off into the morning.

Margaret, holding a little bag with two very expensive Marche Madison donuts inside, stared down into the empty wagon. Magnus held out the hundred dollar bill that he knew was wrong and told his story. Together they wheeled the rattling empty red wagon up the avenue, chewing their donuts without any appetite at all. It is hard to say which one of them felt worse.

"We might as well spend it," Margaret said and this was so unlike her that Magnus looked down and studied his shoes. "When we get the wagon home, I'll take you to the Empire State building like you always wanted. And we will take a taxi."

Two treats. On the way home they stopped at a bank that was open on Saturday and cashed the bill. Then Magnus' mother did something else astounding and went into their bodega and bought $25 worth of lottery tickets for the first time in her life. She explained to Magnus what they were and how she was doing a foolish thing because of the almost impossible odds of winning. Magnus had seen the workmen and builders in his neighborhood going into the bodega at 6:30 every morning. He had seen them, the men in big shoes, scratching at slips of paper and throwing others away. He saw tickets on the street when he went to school and his mother had explained that they were each a dashed hope. So he already knew and wondered even more at his mother's behavior.
The prize was $110 million and Margaret Manning won it that Wednesday. She immediately paid someone to keep her name out of the newspapers, locked up money for Magnus' tuition and went out to buy herself a pair of new leather boots and a better coat at Saks Fifth Avenue.

She wanted an apartment in one of the brand new spires where Europeans and South Americans hid out and where she and her son might have light and space. He would not have to look up because he already was up high in the sky. She did not find these new spaces cold and frightening, she found them thrilling and about as far from her New England background as possible. They were a different future for her and her son.

Magnus, who had climbed the jungle gyms in Carl Schurz park and other playgrounds, would now have his own perch at the top.

Their new apartment was on the 25th floor of the pyramid building way west on 57th street. All her furniture was new except for the plate rack.

She and Magnus went to the store on Madison Avenue between 72 and 73rd street and bought themselves a large set of Chinese Export plates that resembled the ones they had lost. That is the way they both thought of the missing plates—as a loss, not a theft because of all the wonderful miraculous things that had followed.

Many investment banks and brokerage houses and lawyers had been after Margaret to help her along with her fortune. Some vanished, very distant relatives materialized in letters and emails. Margaret trusted none of these men or women and parked all her money in virtually no interest short term Treasury Bonds.

Magnus was back in his school and having a hard time of it because everyone knew about the money. He came home each day to find his mother, who no longer taught school, meeting with advisors about this-and-that. He watched them from the slightly open door to the dining room. Almira, who had picked him up from school, was busy in the kitchen which was filled with a bewilderment of advanced devices and a transparent walk-in refrigerator which still excited Margaret and Magnus with its beauty and the abundance inside.

When he saw these gentlemen with their shiny laced up shoes and the occasional lady in a navy pantsuit with them, Magnus saw a roomful of hissing snakes all twisting and climbing over each other in their glass pit. Up they would go only to fall back under the well bred frown of Margaret Manning who, despite her rash purchase of the lottery tickets, was no one's fool.

Every afternoon when Magnus and Almira would enter the elevator to be whooshed soundlessly and without needing to press a button to the 25th floor, Magnus felt his heart and his stomach drop down.

About two months after the money arrived, Magnus found a tan polo coat thrown over a bench in the hall and his mother talking low to a big man in a suit. At first he saw only the sharp crease on the man's trousers, then he looked up. The man was standing in front of the old plate rack with the new Chinese plates.

"It's him! The man who took the plates from me!"

Margaret jumped up from her chair.

"I have no idea what he is talking about," said the man as the sun slanted across the room and flashed on his glasses, hiding his eyes.

"It's him. It's him!" Magnus was jumping up and down. "Give me back our plates!"

"No, Magnus, you must be wrong."

This was his first no and not even much of a "no" since it was a denial but not a refusal and yet it hurt him. His mother said the man's name—Chase Mellor—and was explaining that he lived in the building—on the 43rd floor—and was to become their new lawyer.

Magnus, now filled with hate, slunk from the room. Behind him he heard his mother laughing with Mr. Mellor.

"Almira, are you ever curious to see this building from the top?"

"No, chico, not at all. We're too high up already."

"That man here lives on the very top."

"You should ask him if you can go upstairs."

"Please, you do it for me, but not today." He went over to the refrigerator and stared inside. Then he opened the door and got inside until Almira pulled him out.

Magnus went to his room to sulk and play his favorite geography game in which he had to guess which of the United States bordered each state. He wanted to get upstairs and see if the lying man had his plates. He wanted to show his mother that he was right. He wanted to get rid of Chase Mellor the lawyer forever.

When his mother had won the lottery game, she explained to him about coincidence and how that, not skill or luck, had brought them the money. Surely this man being here with them in the same building was coincidence number three—plates traded for money, winning money, same bad man here.

It was all too much for Magnus who had just turned eight and was no longer a happy boy. In his dream that night he was climbing the outside of the building to the very top of the pyramid and looking in through the glass and seeing his plates inside. He was looking at all the Chinese warriors and the court ladies, alive and big now, all swirling around in a dance of silks and swords in what he imagined to be a Chinese palace.

He would have to steal one of the man's plates to show to his mother. He would have to climb the back stairs of the building from the 25th to the 43rd floor. Or he would get his mother to take them both up there, where he cochaseuld sneak off into the apartment and look around and come back proudly holding one of the plates. Good idea, and he fell back asleep.

Margaret made Magnus apologize to Mr. Mellor.

She was seeing more of him than Magnus liked and his tan coat was often in the hall closet and his briefcase on the floor except on the weekends when he came down from upstairs, the penthouse, in his old man jeans with a belt. Mr. Mellor was a very big man; he looked like a football player in gray suits. Magnus thought he was really ugly.

"Almira tells me you want to see the top of the building where Mr. Mellor lives. We can go up this Sunday for brunch," his mother said

While they were eating runny eggs with sour cream and salty red dots on top, Magnus went off to explore. He looked in the pantry, he looked in the library. He found stacks of dishes and cabinets of glasses and a collection of old books which is what Mr. Mellor collected. He had no interest in special china. Everything he had was inherited from his mother, he had already explained this to Magnus in the foyer when Magnus apologized. They had both been standing, Magnus looking way up at Mr. Mellor. He saw a lot of pale gray flannel, he saw tortoiseshell glasses, he saw tufts of white hair sprouting around the big head and all his little plots disintegrated, for suddenly he knew he was looking at a stranger, the wrong man.

He was not the same man who had taken their plates and given him the money.

"Gee, I'm sorry," Magnus said.

"Fi, fie, fo, fum, don't give it a thought," said the big man in a voice that filled the room.

For more on Julie, visit juliebaumgold.com