Saturday, February 20, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: The Last Ten

The Last Ten (The Ant and the Grasshopper)
by Julie Baumgold

It was clear as Tally saw Alva Sigal standing on the shore at The Breakers in Palm Beach when they were both twelve years old that Alva would have more fun in life than she would. Alva, whose breasts had begun, was wearing a red swimsuit and had blond hair hanging way down her back. She was kicking sand with her long legs.

The day's heat had collected and risen in the usual umbrella, making long quivery waves on the horizon.

Tally's younger brother, who liked Alva, was about to go out after her onto the beach when Tally pulled him back.

Already Alva and her sisters were known as the "Silver Sigals" and pointed out in the dining room. At that stage, Tally was forced to wear Mary Jane shoes and summery children's dresses with puffed sleeves and smocking while the Sigal girls had no such constraints. They were wearing low square heels and wide patent leather belts on silk shirtwaist dresses. The eldest already had a boyfriend who dined with the family and kept smiling all evening long with his braces glinting.

Alva, even dogged by her nurse, was always with boys at the pool, on the shuffleboard court, deep in the recesses of her cabana. There were one or two of them hanging around her while the nurse sat playing cards with her younger sister.

She wore the same nylon tank suit all the girls wore then, only she swam without the standard rubber bathing cap – her hair streaming out in defiance of The Breaker's swimming pool rules.

Alva conquered and disposed of Tally's brother in half an evening, a fact which raised her even further in Tally's estimation. She never forgot the sight of Alva Sigal on the shore, from the rear, high-rumped, thin-legged, with the wind tugging at her pony tail to pull her away.
Tally's prophesy proved correct. As one of the two Adler children of her generation, Tally was hovered over and guarded from both fun and shocks. She was brought out at what was known as "The Blind Dance" in a custom made dress of heavy silk faille that did her no favors. She married Lionel Barth, one of her two escorts, after he got out of Harvard and she got through Sweetbriar and a year at the Madison Avenue children's boutique where she worked.

Every so often she would hear stories of Alva, all told with relish and disapproval and all meant to suggest that with a great fortune must come certain leaden responsibilities. Alva had the kind of debut in Paris that Tally read about in the "Suzy" column and the kind of dress Tally had wanted and the kind of mother who believed no extravagance is ever impossible.

Alva was photographed stumbling out of European night clubs in half a dress. She had men in the plural, then husbands, two of whom she supported.

"She kept them in ridiculous style all over the place." That was the way the Adlers told it.

She spent money fast and with ardor, buying herself their old names and all that went with them. Statements arrived from her money managers and she put them aside, unopened in folders.

There had been households torn up, restaurants left mid-meal, messes in Alva's wake and, with each failure, a chipping away inside her so she was never whole. Not that anyone noticed as long as Alva swiped the checks from the table, paid, and went out into the night in her band of raucous chums.
Architectural Digest gave six pages to Alva's loft, decorated square and bare, scant and harsh by Johnny Mondrian.

Tally lived in a classic six uptown that was overfilled with Lionel's dead relatives' brown furniture. Everywhere she looked she saw spindly chair legs, pleated lamp shades and yesterday. In an unusual moment of defiance, Tally commissioned a copy of an Ed Ruscha painting that said "That was then/This is now" though she felt it wasn't ever quite now for her and it didn't belong in the place at all.

Tally had the kind of furniture that secretly filled Johnny Mondrian's own place. She knew this because he had bought all the Adler Biedermeier pieces which she disliked even more than Lionel's family's stuff.

Once Tally had to deliver a receipt to him and he had met her at the door of his townhouse and, though he had tried to stand so as to block any view of the inside, she had glimpsed shaky towers of brown furniture with squares of fabric sticking out every which way, chairs on chairs, boxes of little boxes. His place looked like those alarming hoarders caves on television though everything was very grand with dust floating by in the thick air. Johnny was almost in tears that she had caught a glimpse and he made her swear not to tell anyone, ever.

That day Tally was having lunch at Swifty's with Alva and she told her. After all, he was her decorator.

"Reeee-a-lyyy" Alva said with the phony accent she had developed from exposure to people who naturally talked that way. "I've got to get Johnny to buy back some stuff."

"He will never do that."

"My guy at Morgan called today and asked what I wanted to do with the last ten. He meant the last ten thousand! I let them handle my money and they put the bulk with…

"Not Phil Lowe."

"I'm afraid, yes. So I'm finished."

If Alva thought Tally was going to help she was much mistaken. She wasn't even sure if it was true. Any intelligence Alva had was used up on her lies. She would tell little pointless lies to see if she could get away with them in preparation for the really big ones.

In fact, Tally had heard something vague about Alva's money and how she lost it all, as though money at Alva's level could be misplaced.

"Where is your sister in all this?"

"We don't speak. It's over the whole thing with mother and they told me not go off that weekend with Peter, that it would ruin everything and I just went off and did it, he was so attractive…"

Attractive and amusing were the twin pillars of Alva's crumbling house.

"It did ruin anything that Fred and I had left. So…,I've got to get a job. Maybe I could sell real estate or work for you in the boutique. I'd be good at selling and I could fold up the onesies. Or even Lionel, I could steer people to him. I wish Lionel had had my money. I've always admired you for being so…"

Prudent? Boring? Predictable? Such an Adler? Tally couldn't imagine. She had followed her ordered path, while looking back over her shoulder at Alva dancing off the road into some new wreckage.

The thought of having Alva in the store Tally now owned was impossible. For one thing she would have to look at her every day and listen to her babbling and maybe even keep an eye on her when she opened the register. Tally traveled to order the clothes and she kept meticulous books, something she had learned on her own after school. She had worked hard there when she learned she could not have children and had put her own money into the business.

The waiter put down the check. Tally reached for it quickly, but Alva, with long practice, was first. Tally noticed that she gave a 50% tip, something no Adler had ever done.

They walked out into the last of the summer sun on Lexington Avenue swinging their cashmere wraps around them. Alva hailed a cab and gave it to Tally for they were going in quite different directions. She refused to let Tally pay her back for lunch. As Tally turned to look after her, she saw a man coming out of Swifty's doing the same.

Tally walked into her world of little sweaters wondering how long it would be before Alva asked her for money.
Johnny Mondrian was sitting on the stoop of his house in a brown velvet suit waiting for a delivery when Alva walked by.

It was too late for Johnny to pretend he was talking on his cell and did not see her.

The weather had turned, and still Johnny was sockless as usual.

"I have been trying to reach you," Alva said. "I need you to buy back some of my pieces. Maybe you heard that I have no money left."

"Oh darling, I don't believe it."

"It's true. I am a beggar. I'll have to take Tripp out of Deerfield unless ..."

"There's always another man, no?"

"Maybe not this time, and not soon enough to help. My place is already listed with Sotheby's."

"This is not a very good time ... I have so much stock."

"So I've heard. Tally told me you are a bit ... overcrowded. What if I sell you things a piece at a time. At least that will keep me here in New York."

Just then a truck pulled up and some movers unloaded a child's chair. It was Eighteenth Century from the looks of it and Johnny looked embarrassed.

"I'll call you," he said, hoisting the chair under one arm and scampering lightly away like the dancer he once had been. He had to put down the chair to open his three locks and Alva saw inside as he tried to sidle in.

"How about my Vertes screen?"

Johnny paused, shut the door, put down the chair. He had always really wanted that screen. It didn't belong in her apartment. It stuck out and looked wrong against the wood and steel as though the boy on the screen, wreathed by cherubs, had wandered in with his sweet face, red lips, and bloomers to the wrong era. The screen interfered with the carefully culled bareness of his design. It was perfect, however, for his own bedroom where he could lie on his chaise and stare at the pretty youth in his beribboned straw hat.

"I'll give you ten thousand. Cash. Not a cent more, it's not in very good condition."

I'll have twenty thousand, Alva thought and immediately made plans to spend it. In the New York she knew, twenty thousand would not go far at all. For some of her friends it was rent or the monthly maintenance on their co-ops. Alva was confident there would be more money coming in. There had always been money coming in as interest on a principal that no longer existed. Yet she felt she would get more without having to hang up little snowsuits for Tally.

What she needed was the thick white turtleneck sweater at Helmut Lang that she had seen in the fall windows. It was perfect for Parents Weekend, crunching through the leaves in her new boots, her long hair being whipped around. And that reminded her, she would have to have her hair streaked in the new balayage way downtown where she was the only client over forty in the whole industrial size place that had never heard of rollers or a dryer that one could actually sit under. Her green shaved mink had to be taken out of storage, it would look great with the new sweater, the thin black leather pants and her mother's leaf pin—the one that had caused such problems with her sister—to the party she would give to announce what? Her bankruptcy? It would be the last party in her apartment probably and so she had to get Jay Jolly from Swifty's and Jermaine as the DJ. She could pay them both later.
It was an attractive and amusing party Alva had to admit—full of younger faces and the wonderful party sounds—laughing and clinking coming through the music and people wandering up to pick sweet bacon strips from the trays and stopping to look at her paintings (they would all have to go), perching here and there to stare at each other.

Tally and Lionel were there, wondering what everything cost, wondering how she did it, with all the Sigal money gone, all their houses sold at the wrong time, and, yet here was Alva flinging herself about, draping herself here and there and tugging at the white sweater which was too hot for the room. Gay as could be, not in that way. Long blond hair at her age, who was she fooling. Not me, thought Tally. She did not like the way Lionel was looking at Alva at all.

Uptown, way east on Seventy Second Street, Johnny Mondrian stayed home for the first time in months. He now liked to lie on his chaise and stare at the Vertes screen. Behind him was one of his many dangerous towers, shelves stacked with books of samples of every fabric he had ever used in his long career, cocktail table decorating books, all of them signed affectionately and sent free, decorating magazines from as long ago as forever, shirts and scarves tossed here and there and his bird porcelains and little boxes, forests of bibelots.

Johnny Mondrian kept everything he had collected over decades, not always to sell to his clients but because he could not let go of even the most minor find. He needed his things kept close, preserved for the magic of someday.

There were takeout menus for restaurants he would use on rare nights like tonight because his stove was filled with boxes of receipts and bills he had half prepared but not sent out yet though his accountant had begged him to get to his desk. In fact he could not get to his desk. The path to there was impassable.

He got up to adjust the screen so he might see it even better. He heard a rumbling from the street as a gas main exploded and the whole building shook. Things began to fall.

As he lay on the floor looking up at the boy on the screen, he thought he heard pipes playing in a meadow. Chubby putti were pulling ribbons through a pale blue sky and coming out of the clouds, zooming everywhere. And suddenly the boy on the screen came to life, walking slowly to him through thick meadow flowers but so far away. Johnny Mondrian's bare feet twitched and he heard music. The red lips in the sweet Vertes face were opening, laughing, and Johnny heard him calling.
In the scarce money times of 2008, the competitive dressing of children was no longer quite so necessary and Tally's business declined. Many of the private school parents were satisfied with Gap Kids and Tally was not sure how much longer she would be able to keep the store, with its new higher rent, open. She had had to let her assistant go. Friends no longer came in to sit and talk to her, there was the occasional theft now and Tally found herself weary of the bookkeeping and the buying trips.

She was going among the stacks of imported clothes rearranging the displays for the third time that morning when Alva walked in wearing a sable coat and pushing a stroller in which an exquisite Chinese girl in pink tweed coat was napping.

Tally and Alva kissed in the way of women who don't really like each other but are obliged by childhood acquaintance and blood.

"Who's this?" Tally said.

"Bartle's child, now mine, Ning. Isn't she lovely?"

She really was lovely and immediately Tally wondered why she and Lionel had never adopted. Alva was the one with the money now and even a baby. She wondered if Alva would bring up the subject of the loan she had not yet repaid. Tally had more or less forgiven it, though it was three months rent on the store.

She knew Alva had married Bartle Wu from Hong Kong soon after her party and would never have to think about money again.

"We must get her lots and lots of clothes," Alva said, flinging things about, disrupting the carefully sized stacks, leaving her usual mess.

"I'll take everything in the store in her size—summer, winter, all seasons. We are taking Ning back to Hong Kong with us for a year. You and Lionel must come and stay, we have tons of rooms and help. And, by the way, sweetie, don't I owe you some money?"

Sweetie? Where had that come from?

Tally was an Adler. What was that to Alva? What had that been since those school vacations in Palm Beach? It meant that one of them would be fiddling in the sunlight while the leaves rusted and cracked around her and the other would be hauling in the grain for the winter. One would always be kicking sand, dancing and singing and wasting things while the other would be doing what was expected of her kind—keeping things tucked away, keeping things stored and safe for the next generation, even if there was not to be a next generation.

"In fact you owe me quite a bit," Tally said, opening her desk drawer. "I'm happy to take your check or I have a check form right here."

As Alva pulled out her pen, Tally should have felt better but somehow she did not.

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