Saturday, April 16, 2016

Fairy Tales of Manhattan: Wishy, Washy, Whooshy

Wishy, Washy, Whooshy (Ali Baba)
by Julie Baumgold


The woman slid into the row and took the seat closest to the wall. She passed by everyone without touching them, hoisting her leather bag up high. Still a man in the full row grumbled because an Upper West Side movie audience usually behaves like whatever you are doing is somehow annoying.

In front of and behind the woman people were shifting seats from their original selection, in the process dropping kernels of the papery popcorn that was never salted or buttered unless by request.

It was too warm in the theater and everyone was bulkily dressed, still feeling the chill from their age and the windy descent on the escalator. Then it would get too cold and everyone would shrug back into their coats.

Pamela had taken her mother to this theater in the basement of the brick building until one afternoon when her mother had stood at the top of the escalator and shaken her head. Now she went alone, dressed carelessly and wearing sunglasses instead of mascara. She had her eleven dollars ready for the senior ticket which the girl issued automatically to everyone on line.

Pamela was seated next to the latecomer and she felt sure that her perfume was Opium and that her bag was a Hermes Birkin. Her mother had two real Birkins and Pamela, who was divorced and more or less poor, had none and never would.

This was the time Pamela's mother always talked, commenting on the audience in her normal voice because she did not believe in whispering and causing bad stares. Once, a fight. Pamela still dreaded this moment before the relief of the dark when the music began and the screen lit up with subtitles for the coming attractions.

"Cara Toni!" said the woman next to her very softly as the movie began.

Pamela shifted a bit.

The movie was showing Pamela the dolce vita she knew when she was very young and working for a fashion magazine that sent her to Milan and Paris twice every year. It was a time when she was almost beautiful for a year or two and in a position of some power. She was then with younger versions of this man Jep Gambardella who began well and had wasted his later life. She had known foreign men with swept back hair who dangled cigarettes and danced in the whirlpool with their arms up. She was getting out of low open cars when the light was blue purple.

Then much later she went to parties and, through her column, had the power like Jep to make them a failure.

The woman next to her sighed very quietly, her pale features in profile–a small slightly beaked nose, dark lips, wisps of dark hair under a sable hat. Suddenly she was up and moving along the row in a hurry. The row swung its legs to one side though there was no need.

"Scusi! Scusi," with the Opium trailing. The back door of the theater opened letting in a strip of light.

On screen Jep was scolding a pretentious woman at a party, revealing to their friends all the lies of her life since he had known her when they were young. Pamela was lost in the Roman streets and human ruins. At the same time she was accusing herself for failures like Jep's, doing her own review.

A wonderful movie. Pamela had no one with which to share this observation. She might call her mother later. She wanted to see it again. Around her everyone was pulling up coats in silence, not saying anything until they were on the up escalator, many of them having come alone, anyway.

Pamela wound her scarf around her and reached down for her bag. The woman's Birkin was there. There was a tingling in her fingers and she felt a flush come into her face. She looked around and of course no one was looking at her. The bag was maroon leather and she knew right away she would take it. If anyone in the lobby stopped her, she would say she was on her way to the manager. If the Italian woman came flying back, she would hand it over but it had been some time, maybe half the movie, since she had left. Pamela tucked the Birkin under her own rather large bag, but not inside it and with her heart pounding and a burning face she walked up the aisle. Quickly, quickly. A taxi, quickly. But there was none. She would have to walk, exposed, carrying the two bags, from Broadway to Central Park West.

Why hadn't the woman come back? She could not have gotten even to the escalator without missing her bag. She should have rushed back. Scusi, scusi.

Pamela could not risk walking up 62nd or 63rd streets so she walked on Broadway, close to the buildings and looking down into her scarf, up to 64th street where she tucked the Birkin inside her bag as she walked east. She was expecting someone to come along and tap her on the shoulder. "Mademoiselle, vous avez fait une faute" as they did maybe forty years ago when she was arrested at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Now she was a thief again. She would not look in the bag until she was home. The leather was supple, the bag was not old and it was heavy. Pamela was smiling so that people noticed.

In the taxi, while looking at the Sikh's turban, she began a list of the objects she had lost and that no one had ever returned. First of all a manuscript, clearly identified with her name, in a Duane Reade on her way to Random House for a meeting with an editor who might buy her book. Then her grandmother's diamond bar pin which had been stolen by a model or perhaps one of the maids in a house called Nirvana in Acapulco. She had unclipped her mother's gold and diamond earrings in the bathroom of a plane and not noticed the next person to enter, not even whether it was a man or woman, and so she had toured the rows of the plane looking sharply at every person, trying to find someone looking back at her with a guilty face. The octagonal sapphire ring was a mystery. She had thrown out the emerald- eyed flying fish ring with a bunch of Kleenex, left the French umbrella with the wooden shoe on the handle in a taxi.

What she remembered most was a wallet with $40 in cash that she had found at the indoor Skyrink when she was six. Her father had made her return it to the attendant with the rented skates.

"I will get out here," she told the driver as soon as they had crossed the park and, for the first time, she felt safe.
"What's that?" said Bernice, Pamela's mother, the next day, all excited. She was seated on the slightly torn silk of her most upright chair waiting for her.

"It's real. A woman just left it at the movies. It had $700 and a pouch full of jewelry."

"Left it?"

"She raced out and never came back. I didn't know it was there until I was leaving."

This may not have been the truth. Pamela could have been touching the bag with her foot the whole rest of the movie. She could have been wondering, even thinking of terrorism and reporting all abandoned suspicious packages. Or she might have been considering her loot, all the riches inside.

Her mother wanted to know about the jewelry. She had no place to wear her jewels anymore, but she had quite a collection. Pamela knew she would have to start selling most of it soon. Her mother had no idea she was on the verge of being poor.

"You remember the Bulgari watch you lost? It was just the same, a very old one but without the case. And some baroque pearls and a couple of rings. It's just like that Ali Baba story you used to tell me–Wishy, Washy, Whoshy , the magic cave with treasures in each room and I used to make you describe the treasures…the room of jewels, the room of clothes and furs, the delicious foods…you loved to do that."

"And you made me tell it over and over again. You especially like the jewelry room."

"Now I have a Birkin too. I'm giving you the watch."

"No, you keep it. Who was she?"

"No wallet, no ID whatsoever, I consider it a gift from the foreign movie gods

"And you did not even try to…

"Why should I? Who's to say what they would have done with it if she never came back. And you shouldn't talk."

Pamela was remembering how when she was a child Bernice had lifted the occasional small object from Bloomingdales and Bergdorf's and proudly displayed them before Pamela's father came home. Her mother's shoplifting had stopped when she stopped having panic attacks, when she stopped bleeding so heavily every month and then when she stopped bleeding at all.

"Will you bring over all the things, I want to see them. I wish I could have gone with you."

"When the movie's out on Netflix, I'll get it for you."

"What time did you go because I heard on the radio that a woman collapsed on Broadway yesterday. Is it possible…?"

They both felt nervous and bad for about five minutes, Pamela deciding not to pursue it, Bernice wondering if she could make it the half block to Ralph Lauren's new store which was like the caves in the Wishy Washy story for her now.

She had to pause halfway down the block and again on the corner of Seventy Second Street with Pamela's hand hovering under her elbow and then she had to sit quickly on the seat by the elevator inside Ralph Lauren.

Pamela's Birkin was really most attractive and so much newer than hers which she could no longer carry because it was too big and too heavy, even when empty of everything but her keys, the list of her doctors and medicines that Pamela had laminated for her, and the brown bottle of nitroglycerin.

Bernice was weary. She was furious at herself for being so old and weak, she was separately furious at each of her ailments and she was annoyed at her daughter for looking younger than her years without surgery and for having had this sudden gift of money and brand new jewels. And for being able to go anyplace she wanted to without an attendant. Also for keeping her waiting, seated in her chair in the living room like some stuffed owl dressed up in beautiful clothes. Yes, all her clothes were beautiful and reassuringly expensive which is why they had lasted so long.

Bernice had been famous for her taste among her set from the time she was a girl, had designed her wedding dress and had it made with her new initials in seed pearls on one sleeve and she had designed her trousseau too. When Pamela was in college, Bernice had entered Vogue's Prix de Paris contest in Pamela's name. She had become a finalist and would have won but Pamela withdrew her. Pamela was a poet then and thought a fashion magazine beneath her, and besides, it wasn't even her submission.

Bernice had been known all along Madison Avenue, with salesgirls popping from the stores to tell her of new shipments when she passed by. Even Vera Wang, when she was a salesgirl at St. Laurent, had called out to her more than once.

She looked over at her daughter. Pamela tried, but she always got it slightly wrong. She studied her daughter as she tried to get back her breath.

Pamela was bent over, smelling the Ralph Lauren candle burning by the elevator and remembering the whiff of Opium when she opened the Birkin. She had thrown out the makeup pouch and the tortoiseshell comb with the long dark hairs. She had not told her mother about the key with a gold envelope attached at the end engraved "Cara mia" with an address on Park Avenue. Of course she had Googled it and found nothing for the building had been replaced by another, probably one of the new slivers.

There were many things she could no longer tell her mother whose occasional snottiness was her way of hanging on.

Crouched on the floor with her dog licking her face, Pamela had emptied the bag which, like all big bags, kept a life. They were miniature Ali Baba caves full of secrets and treasures. The woman's small gold pillbox was in the bag now, emptied of its white pills, as was the Mont Blanc pen with the red stone heart on top.

Her mother was looking especially old today but was still beautiful and her hair, the red hairpiece in back, stayed coiffed and defiant. Bernice always said if she could afford it she would have gone to a gray piece, but Pamela did not believe this.

What had Jep said in the movie? That after sixty five, he had realized that he couldn't waste any more time doing things he did not want to do.

Did she want to go upstairs with her mother and tour the model rooms with the sales staff trailing and wondering if her mother would collapse on the spot, watching her slow steps through beach house rooms and movie rooms and set pieces of all sorts, none of them knowing that her mother had lived like this, had better taste in better rooms.

Her parents' party chef, who also cooked for Bunny Mellon, had said that only Bernice owned sets of plates and china and linens to compare. Soon they would have to be sold too.

Whether Pamela wanted to or not, they would go up the elevator to the fifth floor and into the cave and go from room to room and touch the pillows and the blankets because this was the only museum that Bernice could get to now and it occupied and soothed her.

The first salesperson, who was black with a real smile, had noticed her Birkin and her mother. With her $700, $300 with her in cash, Pamela could actually buy something.

"Did they tell you anything about the woman on Broadway?" Pamela said suddenly. She died didn't she?"

"Just that someone had tried to help and they described her as a well-dressed woman in her fifties. Yes, she died."

"But no name? I'm beginning to think it was the woman from the movie. I am trying to remember if I heard sirens or anything. I don't think I did."

"Are you sorry?"

But no, Pamela was not and her mother knew it because who knew her better.

Pamela had finally had a bit of good luck.

Bernice felt herself having to sit at once and she sank into the closest chair which was a blue satin armchair in the beach room. Strangely enough she looked as though she belonged. She always looked as though she belonged in any room and by being there improved many of them.

"I am so tired," she said.

"How did Wishy Washy end? Somehow I can't remember. I mean was it about getting trapped there in the cave. Was it like a parable of greed or did the girl remember that the magic words were 'Wishy Washy Whoshy' and she could release herself?"

"It's strange, but I don't know anymore. Maybe she had the words and left with some of the treasure and lived happily ever after. Or maybe not," Bernice said with one of her old wicked smiles.

"The woman with the bag was Italian, really very chic," Pamela said. "She may have known the actor in the movie and that's why she got upset and left. She said his name when the movie began. Or maybe she just needed air."

"I'm tired, I want to go home now," said Bernice.

"Should I buy you something to cheer you up? I have her three hundred dollars with me."

Bernice looked around at all the pretty things she did not need and would never use and she wanted them all and yet she no longer wanted any of them.

"What I would really like is for you to take me to a nice restaurant some day or to the movies, to spend some time, not fly in and out, always with the dog."

In whatever time remained, Pamela decided, she would take her mother to a movie. She would get her mother's housekeeper to walk with her on the other side. They would go to the Paris Theatre where there was no escalator and they could walk right in.

And then upstairs to the restaurant on the seventh floor of Bergdorf's where they could have the Gotham Salad that her mother liked, of course without the bacon and ham.

For more on Julie, visit juliebaumgold.com