The eternal warm dusk in the Astoria lounge was punctuated by the soft hum of a gramophone in the corner. Top shelf scotch and whisky decorated the cotton napkins with aromatic rings of amber as cigar smoke curled around the top of oak bookshelves. Men in silk shirts and fine suits reclined and chuckled softly as girls perched on their knees and whispered in their ears. The women were tall and thin, almost ghostly in the dim haze, every so often one would approach me with a bottle of gin or European brandy despite my consistent dismissals. They wore an air of complacency about them; as if their heavy maquillage, though worn with grace, was intended to compensate for their palpable lack of vivacity.
There was a consistent ebb and flow of men within the lounge, the pattern resembling the rise and fall of the sun each day. Despite the complete lack of windows or clocks, the coming of night became evident as the population of the room increased. Judging solely by the visual demographics at present, I had speculated it was roughly eight o’clock. The energy was suddenly tense despite the intended relaxing quality of the space, to my realization the root of this peculiar ailment drifted regally through the large doorway.
The man was of considerable height and bore an astounding presence. He carried a boyish demeanor with his etched face, giving him a youthful appearance for his age as he moved inscrutably with either naiveté or utter impetuosity across the threshold. He artfully dodged a group of intoxicated bohemians dancing and cackling in their exit and proceeded to search for an empty, leather chair somewhat removed from the bar. To my astonishment he selected the seat across from my own and glided toward it with sleek determination. I sunk deep into the cracked cushions and stared intently at the arched patterns on the rug. Out of the side of my eye I saw his wingtip shoes and garishly white spatterdashes cross in the American fashion as he reclined.
He held himself in an astute manner yet possessed the energy of a man who had lost all wit, a terrifying assertion no doubt as one certainly knows the utter importance of wit. This peculiar quality originated from his eyes, the white, moist orbs seemed ignorant and naively content. I sat still, almost contemptuous as my gaze avoided his form elusively.
“Light?,” a gruff voice inquired from my left flank. I turned to see the man extending a deep brown cigar and a match.
“No thank you sir, I don’t partake,” I replied subtly disengaged.
“Alright, suit yourself,” He replied in an annoyingly enthused manner, his accent betrayed him as a New Englander, more Boston than Providence or Newport, most likely middle class.
“I suppose I’ve been at it too long to stop, much as I’d like to,” he persisted proceeding t pucker his lips around its paper rim and take a long drag exhaling the smoke through his nostrils. I peered at him through the haze in a futile attempt to discern his place in such an establishment. It was apparent he held neither the manners nor the conduct of a member of the upper classes and yet he was dressed finely and sitting, of all places, right across from myself. It was his hands, his were the hands of a working man; veined and calloused, not the hands of a banker or bureaucrat.
“Warren. Warren Thompson,” he paused returning my gaze, “ I’m sorry you looked especially confused,” he finished, extending one of those hands toward my chest. I myself was taken aback by his overtness, I must have appeared a fool sitting in still observation.
“Irving Cohen, pleasure,” I said recomposing my expression and returning his gesture. Again, he reclined, retreating into the chair with quiet speculation.
“Banker?” He replied, smirking slightly.
“Yes, how did you guess?,” the exchange was thinly veiled with unspoken tension, our charged prose dancing in the air.
“Lucky guess,” Warren muttered, attempting to disguise his grin with a sip from his whiskey glass, I drank also looking over the rim with childish contempt, eventually mustering up enough snark to inquire of Mr.Thompson’s profession.
“I’m an artist,” he replied in a somewhat guarded fashion as if he was prepared to defend this fact; hastily flicking embers from his cigar into the glass ashtray. A shrill voice from the bar broke our concentration and a slight woman clattered across the scene. She was petite and delicate, feminine in every sense of the word.
“Warren! My dear! It’s been far too long, lovely to see you!,” She jingled, placing her small frame atop his legs. He greeted her with casual seduction and amicability, instead of returning her loud formalities he whispered inaudibly in her ear prompting her to blush and laugh. She caught my gaze and immediately straightened her back to a rigid angle, a position that fell unnaturally upon her form.
“I apologize, Anne. This is my good friend Mr. Irving Cohen,” He interjected. She sunk back into her former posture and relaxed, extending her arm with a charming entitlement.
“Its an absolute pleasure, my dear,” I replied leaning forward to kiss the skin on the back of her delicate hand, the soft smoothness was vaguely perfumed with a cherry aroma that fit her spirit with divine aptness. Upon returning to my chair I noticed Warren smirk slightly and raise his eyebrows in unexpected enjoyment. The image that existed before me bore the romantic realism of a portrait, the details seemed almost too fine to exist in such an imperfect world. In their ubiquitous nature, I found the pair remarkably astounding, dripping with artistry and passion. With this realization I felt privy to a sense of elation, qualified to share in the joy these two people had come to possess, and all anger or discomfort I held against the man melted into sorrowful contrition.
“Anne here is a Ziegfeld girl,” He remarked gazing proudly at me, she tapped his chest in feigned modesty and added: “Really, I’m just a dancer, not even a good one. The critics just despise me, you see.”
Warren took another sip of his drink and said in quiet contemplation: “A critic is someone to be pitied, such a sorrowful existence to gather ones joy or living by finding fault in human ingenuity,” and proceeded to look in my direction for affirmation, for which I awarded him a slight nod.
“So what sort of art do you make?,” I asked subtlety attempting to change the subject. He told me he was a painter with an endearing gusto. His eyes glimmered with pride and just as he opened his mouth to speak again Anne interjected forcefully: “He’s a brilliant surrealist, I’m sure you’ve seen his work one place or another, it’s truly just marvelous.” He looked up at her with happy approval and made a humorous gesture toward myself signifying the accuracy of her statement.
Again a silence fell over the three of us and the void was filled with the music of hysterical carousing, I hesitated to bring up politics or recent events and quickly shunned them from my mind.
“You’re quite wealthy, I assume?,” I was yet again taken aback by the impropriety and directness of his manner, but a man so honest could surely tell a lie, so I replied with the truth.
“I’ll tell you one of the great things about being a poor man in a rich city: you don’t owe anybody anything and you’re only the one holding the cards in your own damn life ,” he leaned forward smiling and resting his elbow on Anne’s shoulder, prompting her to kiss his neck lightly. “The worst thing about being wealthy is the satisfaction, it’s truly the most severe ailment; simply apathy disguised by money, yes?”.
“I suppose one could see it that way…,” I trailed, beginning to comprehend the depth of his unforeseen wisdom.
“Only the extraordinary grasp the fact that conquest is a product of indifference; music, art, writing, you see dear Irving, in life’s pursuits the good seek to replicate, while the truly exceptional strive to innovate,” and with this proverb he raised his glass toward the sky and enjoyed the last drop of spirits.
Warren Thompson checked his watch and left the Astoria lounge at midnight. With a graceful Anne trailing closely behind him, the energy slowly drained from the room and despite the hot fervor of the other guests, I had grown tiresome of the setting and left for my apartment.
I never saw Mr. Thompson again; however four years later I encountered Anne at an art gallery in upper Manhattan. She had aged just slightly, though her brown hair still held a resilient quality as it hung around her face. I doubted she would remember me, but the familiar jingle of her voice brought us both back to the cracked leather chairs and taste of the night.
“Irving, it’s so good to see you,” she whispered in an oddly solemn fashion that seemed foreign on her lips. She gently arched her back and kissed me on both cheeks, I held out my arm and she took it leading me throughout the hall. Immense paintings covered the bricks in windows to etherial landscapes. Anne abruptly positioned herself in front of a medium sized portrait too beautiful to be constrained by the bounds of language.
“It’s the last one,” she whispered into my shoulder. Immediately, I was swept with a wave of pitiful grief as I understood. The gallery was empty and I let her cry as she held me tightly.
Though I have only lived a short while, I can claim to have had but a single profound experience; an unrivaled encounter with contemporary holiness and deific wisdom. I did buy the painting, an impeccable travestied homage to the lost sage. Today, in the languid present it hangs on the opposite wall of my office, scrutinizing the fool toiling below in his hopelessly exceptional pursuit of innovation.
Lisa Corn is a short story fiction author based in New Jersey, she enjoys traditional weaving, jazz music, and hiking. In her spare time she conducts independent research on crime during the Prohibition Era.
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