about the author

Originally from an upper Mississippi tributary town, Jean E. Verthein traveled through Italy, Iran, Japan, and Mexico before settling in New York City. She bused across Afghanistan and Iran in a study tour while learning about the literature of the two countries. Her counseling of disabled students—some from war zones—has taught her the wonder of survival, and her experience as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work has been invaluable. She earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Hypertext Magazine, Litbreak, Poydras Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other presses. Adelheide Books, New York and Lisbon, will publish her novel, Last Gentleman in the Middle Distance, in October 2019.

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The Display  

Jean E. Verthein

Reeling into the lobby, the elevator opened before a sprung tarred-spring painting—a screw, space capsule, or satellite—not there the night before. In the dawn, I squinted at this five-by-eight canvas, hanging under a false wall squinch. Midday would beam through the red, green, and amber stained glass windows between other paintings, hung by whom in our Gothic Revival building?

Later, at noon, Gisela Janson’s hand whisked the paintings into insignificance—from “new people,” rather than reverse-telescoped from the past that “speaks to me.”

Outside, while gazing up at the Cloisters on its rocks, she sang, “When I see this scene, I am in Europe again.” A stylish sixtyish blond Austrian, she’d arrived here during the assembling of these medieval chapels, castle rooms, and gardens. “Little else like it here.” Medieval-order art was displayed like spells: unicorn tapestries, the Fuentaduěna, and Teutonic knights’ ewers.

The Upper Manhattan tip, island prow to the sea, rolls upward into the highest New York City point, stands out below from the Hudson estuary. Paved highway exit above its fault line in future time could erupt.

Bedrock crops out of the hillside. Among its castings, raw sculpture, many have roughed out their lives. Silences of the past have broken over these sights. The native Algonquian speakers flew away from their caves during the 1930s Cloisters’ assemblage, naturalists said, leaving their earthenware, flint arrows, shards, shells, and food bits in kitchen middens. Earlier, with the natives, the migrants in—Dutch, Hessians, German, and English—preserved their church, farms, and ramparts.

* * *

On my Saturday run, I caught up with David Jonas. In eighty years of stateliness, he pushed his skis on little high-woodland snow, preferable to the parkland across the way. Nearby, Letizia Santiago, her friend Andrea, and I were to run above Spuyten Duyvil. From the heights ahead, we’d see Henry Hudson’s statue.

Leti agreed with David. “Give me my rocks, my trees, my muddle.” Then she slipped off to her studio to paint her rocks as flame licks.

“Give me,” he smiled back, “art for nature, not faith or politics.”

Unable to ski in the mountains of his youth, at least he’d found his hill. In prewar Germany, he’d slalomed around raised knives, I gathered, and leaped over cracked glass panes. He glided on.

Andrea took the rocky path home. I jogged next to David.

Attuned as to words as I was while producing youth theater, mentsch seemed to David like “mensch” or was, though not hombre simpatico, not yet. Before my awareness, Libbergeblibbinne, German peasant goulash, became “Louisiana-put-together.”

Here, though the German I caught onto upon entering our Gothic apartment house I assumed was Yiddish, which I never spoke. David and his wife said they’d grown up in the high culture. They dress for shul on Shabbat, as do the Jansons for church on the Sabbath to observe haphazardly and speak German to each other. The rest of us speak Spanish and English.

* * *

But for one grandfather, I might have discerned other rights, words, and sights. In 1914, he decreed his family would speak no more German and packed away his books in script, opera librettos, and predigtbuch.

Within the locked jaw trunks under attic eaves, he shut in the words of prayers my father ignored anyway, what he’d heard or never learned. Only the opera glasses remained on the low prairie-house mantel with the Civil War ammo horn.

* * *

Along the hill, David pointed to a transplanted willow in winter. Now in mid forest beside the stream, frozen and thawing, next to an old settler’s outdoor cellar, overgrown and snowed upon. Yet the stream flowed beneath our apartment building.

* * *

“He lets them in,” Sophie Jonas whispered later to anyone nearby, regarding our superintendent, Artie, and newcomers. The semiretired or retired and I, theatrically employed, clustered around at postal delivery time.

Awaiting mail, the Jonases had fled to Cuba, and the Hirschs, Jansons, and others to New York. Then, the indigenous, likened to stray willows, had still inhabited our nearby forest, though they were disappearing.

Now, Edmundo Gonzalez, Artie’s assistant, polished the brass railings and postal-box doors. From Andalusia, Spain, Edmundo had swept in from 1940s Cuba to New York on a tourist visa, got lost and found in our high-rise building. Decades later, I arrived, fired up to find out what was going on. Our building contained keyholes and peepholes.

Near the brass mailboxes, noted Augusta, our super, Artie, examined his aide’s work and demonstrated polishing the indents and scratches.

Patching ceiling cracks from earth rumblings, Edmundo was proving himself one of the best assistant supers and was rumored the onetime keeper of a castle in Spain, though here in New York was rarely out of our building’s basement.

“The stream underneath this building cracks our walls,” Ursula Janson noted, “which requires fixing the ceiling.”

“Not furnace steam,” her husband said. “But from the earth’s crackling.”

“Wherever it’s from, it lets insects through the upper walls year-round. Ugh!”

The mail arrived.

* * *

Back upstairs, from behind me, Letizia dashed in, swinging her hair a yard wide and long in a black silken cordoned braid and wearing an old wide-wale caramel corduroy pantsuit, matching her skin. Edmundo drank her in, almost tasting her with his tongue.

From Las Palmas, the Canaries off Spain and Africa, Leti’s parents had migrated from Puerto Rico to Pleasant Avenue, New York, to the Bronx and then to our Upper Manhattan Gothic.

* * *

Meanwhile, Gisela was saying, “Well, Spaniards painted excellent murals like those at the Cloisters.”

“Frescoes,” Ursula corrected.

“There are no frescoes up there,” Gisela replied.

“Mexico or Italy, then.” Ursula also emphasized that apartment houses nearby presented fine murals, not second-rate paintings, in their lobbies. Upon her arrival from Germany, she’d performed in a small club. Too busy, she hardly met other Gothic residents, or ordered an out-of-work artist’s pastoral murals.

* * *

Anyway, wall marble paneling interfered with any paintings or lobby panorama.

“But it’s a smear!” Ursula roared about the satellite or screw dripping painterliness. “The paint’s not even dry.”

“A licorice stick my baby granddaughter wishes to lick.” Ursula moistened her lips while her fingers landed on her white-silvery hair, newly waved. Her rings’ brilliants glittered.

“Only fools display incomplete work,” Gisela said coming up. “Consider us fools for looking down on such modern work. A lobby’s for passing through, not displaying paintings. Imagine the lobby crowded.” Her fingernails dipped in rose, rested on the high-back iron settle, bolted to the floor like its companion chair and lectern. Not to mar her polish, she flicked off imaginary outsiders: “Not pedestrians in off the street.”

Revering possible future masters, I moved between paintings as if in a gallery. “Awkward?” I asked Leti, who must have hung them.

“Yes, who?” Gisela queried Edmundo. Sulky, he cocked his shoulders and winked without answering.

“Amateurs,” Gisela fussed in my ear.

He replied, “Maybe in fifty years, they’ll be Ribera, Goya, El Greco, Whistler, or Dove.”

“I myself am for El Greco, with peculiar eyes on his Toledo. Picasso, Dali.” David Jonas, cheery from skiing, said, “Here’s a new gallery an elevator ride away.” The elevator closed. I rode up.

It opened on my floor. I, my sweat suit hood wet from light snow. I heard the click and hum of Spanish. My eyes grew periscopes to slant around my hood to see. One of them, black-shoed, purred through my hood. “I prefer the beauty of the flesh to the oil paintings downstairs.”

I elongated myself, believing my height above theirs, and planned to lose them. One said, “You may be a one-eye out of Goya; however, we are your neighbors now.”

“There’s a continent of us.” To the beat of their feet on the terrazzo and my knock on Letizia’s door, two down from mine, my eyes blinked at the black and white floor tiles. I tried to rub my eyes free of this flickering world and heard las coquitos in her kitchen cage.

She greeted me, brushing her hair into a shoulder cape with powerful strokes. “I heard the men. They must have seen you as a one-eye. A tuerta? No, a tapada or maja within my sweatshirt hood, in a latter-day mantilla on a flirt.”


Letizia ignored me and trilled on about the lobby paintings. “Some people in this place do not click with the soaring spring satellite. Just think, its painter will do the definitive work with springs. Let’s see it again.”

Downstairs, the black-shoed man stood on lookout. Edmundo’s daughter, Myrta, was hanging her last painting in her project. Ultimately her father, though, despaired over adhesive on his marble and plaster walls.

At the entryway’s other end, Gisela proclaimed, “My living room wall painting is alive. With insects out inspecting cracks.”

David Jonas humored her and irritated the rest. “New galleries are opening everywhere.”

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