At an ungodly hour on Christmas Eve morning in an Upper East Side building, Dora Bauer waved off the doorman as she left, startling him from his drowse.
It had been well past two in the morning when she’d left her studio earlier. She had indulged, possibly too freely, in a bottle of Maker’s Mark as she applied the finishing touches to a canvas. Mindful of a boozy brume she biked with care up a ploughed route on Park Avenue. Back at the apartment there was only time for a shower and a quick change. She’d had to scramble to pack her bag with the essentials: her journal, a thick volume of Proust and a few slimmer paperbacks of poetry. She had pens, yellow legal pads, an extra sweater, woolen socks, an unopened bottle of bourbon and a pack of Dunhill Reds. Folded into underwear, less sexy and more functional, were a couple of freshly rolled joints.
She headed to Fifth Avenue in the winter darkness and hailed a cab. Dora’s spontaneous friendliness belied a cynical nature. New York cab drivers saw through that. Strange men often did.
The driver sped down the deserted avenue along a route of moneyed cliff dwellers and bare trees abstractly silhouetted along Central Park. They passed holiday displays in darkened department store windows. He talked about President Ford’s message to their bankrupt city. “We got the bailout awright,” he said, “but that guy’s goose is cooked fer shuah.” As native New Yorkers he and his passenger shared a certain laissez-faire attitude and they laughingly agreed that being told to drop dead sort of came with the territory.
Until they swept past the towering illuminated evergreen in Rockefeller Center, their chatter remained impersonal. He informed Dora that she was lucky; usually the lights were off by midnight. Except for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Then they were kept on for a straight 48 hours. She told him of her Atlantic City getaway and the reasons for it. He steered through Times Square and dropped her off on Eighth Avenue amidst swirling trash and the few vagrants huddled inside the entrance to the Port Authority. The famously sordid strip along 42nd Street looked more than usually ominous in the freezing pre-dawn chasm.
“Take care ya self,” he admonished. “There’s a lotta lunatics out there.”
Dora lowered a bulky floral-patterned carpetbag from her shoulder and balanced it on the tips of her Timberland boots, to avoid contact with the grimy cement floor scabbed with spent chewing gum and sadly recognizable fluids. She jammed bare, raw-knuckled hands into the deep pockets of her pea coat. She buried her nose into a knitted multicolored scarf—a thrift shop find. The Port Authority bus terminal, at that hour—at any hour—was like a tomb. She made her way to the Greyhound gate and waited for the hound from hell.
She’d lied to her old aunt and said she had been invited to stay with friends in the country, knowing full well she could never be rusticated. She had told neither her friends nor disparate lovers of her plans. They would have tried to talk her out of such a gloomy escapade, coax her to their overwrought dinners, or guilt her into joining a lonesome drunken despair in the Village, on a barstool in Julius’ alongside a bereft handful of gay patrons where she would be even more conspicuous than usual. Worse, some might not have made any overture at all. She would be poor Dora, newly divorced and alone at the holiday. They would cry: “Oh, such a desolate place! Atlantic City in the winter?” And they would be right. She’d bought her ticket two weeks ago so as to not change her mind. Dora wanted desolation.
Dora chose a seat nearest the driver. To move back any closer to the one grizzled passenger hacking into a yellowed handkerchief would have been foolish. The bus looped along the exit ramp toward a sliver of light beneath the darkness. It reeked of stale reminders of previous passengers and synthetic air freshener. There were two days of seaside ahead of her. She had two-and-a-half hours to catch some sleep.
A mechanical squeal and then the wheezing exhale of brakes shot through Dora like a threat. She woke and rose sharply, hitting her head on the overhead storage. Bleary-eyed, she stumbled out into the Atlantic City terminal. She poked her head into a foul-smelling restroom and thought better of tramping over its waterlogged floor. Hiking the carpetbag over her shoulder, she trudged out to the main drag.
She scoured Atlantic Avenue. It was too damned early. The big round face of the clock inside the jeweler’s shone through a bracing drizzle. It was not yet nine in the morning. Shops that weren’t boarded up offered nothing in the way of breakfast, and besides, nothing was open. There was an old-fashioned hardware store. There was a dress shop with a window display of bewigged manikins teetering shoeless on stands, like levitated drunks. Next door was an income tax preparer and then the last resort of the desperate, the pawnbroker.
She squeezed between boat-sized cars with tail fins like sharks and crossed an oily tarmac streaked with slush. A blue and gray bubble—a dwarfish bus—rolled up to her but she waved the jitney driver on. Her head throbbed. Her face was frozen. She was desperate for coffee. She started for the boardwalk and her spirits revived. Anything could be had there, from what she remembered. She had her heart set on a room at the grand Marlborough-Blenheim hotel.
Dora crossed Pacific Avenue, the main thoroughfare, parallel to the Atlantic Ocean and at that hour nearly devoid of traffic. Her attention was drawn to decrepit buildings, vacant lots hemorrhaging sodden debris and shops that may or may not be open on an otherwise abandoned strip. Memories of a lively summer crowd carrying kitschy treasure from souvenir shops belied reality. It looked like the kind of place rope-necked thugs could shake down a cowed shop owner. Dora, rattled, hurried along.
Once on the boardwalk she was buoyed at the sight of a familiar image on a bright yellow billboard, an unexpected window in a dull winter sky. The incongruity of a half-naked, curly blonde moppet with a Coppertone tan alongside her mischievous puppy was not lost on Dora, shivering in the raw dampness. Get more from the sun. She recognized the domed, architecturally ornate Moorish structure ahead—something out of an Arabian dream—rising above the boardwalk, bigger even than she remembered. Another gargantuan hotel nearby loomed like an asylum. But in the freezing mist the chimneys of the Marlborough-Blenheim conjured mystery, maybe even danger, and not the welcoming sunbaked hotel she remembered.
Early on in her marriage—nearly seven years ago—Dora had been determined to live up to her husband’s single-minded whirlwind courtship and had accompanied him on an overnight to Atlantic City. She’d sat raptly attentive in an audience of scientists as he delivered a paper—incomprehensible to her—which had something to do with toad bladders.
She’d been dazzled by his determination, his education and radical political views, his family’s Park Avenue residence. She hadn’t so much accepted the marriage proposal as offered little resistance. His parents, as far as she knew, were not aware of her existence until after they married. Visits to the sprawling art-filled apartment, pre-marriage, were made sporadically, when the doctor and his wife were absent. The young couple’s late-night presence among the Eames chairs and the antique marble and gold leaf, a small but not insignificant collection of Italian master drawings, decorative kilim rugs and the abundant examples of his mother’s cloisonné handiwork was noticed only by the live-in housekeeper who noiselessly interrupted amorous fondling to ask if he—not Dora—needed anything before retiring for the night.
Dora should have suspected his insistence on eloping was less a nod to anti-establishment and more of what was to come. She couldn’t make the rent and he sent bad checks. Stamping her feet on the boardwalk, Dora pulled the knitted scarf over her nose and muttered under her breath, “Bastard.”
The sign on the door of the luncheonette flipped to Open. A huddle of women wrapped in cloth coats that denied the cold pushed past the gray-faced gentleman too old to be a soda jerk. He wore a not-so-white apron, a tiny black bow tie and a white fountain cap with red piping; a weary nod to authenticity. Dora followed the women to the counter and lowered her bag between her feet. She ordered a cup of coffee—steaming hot coffee that the obliging man kept pouring. Oddly, her hunger had abated. She tapped a cigarette from its red and gold box. Neither she nor the women removed their coats in the unheated shop. They kept scarves securely tied around wooly hats. Dora flipped the collar of her dark blue pea coat. She didn’t have a hat. Seated next to her was a woman in a coat with a rabbit fur collar. A cheap-jeweled snowman was pinned to it, its tiny red nose alight.
Later Dora stood outside the Marlborough-Blenheim hotel and weighed her options. There were really only two. She could head back to the station and board the next bus home or she could take the desk clerk’s suggestion and seek out his cousin’s motel. Hesitancy in the man’s voice was something to consider. He’d told her there were no rooms available in the hotel because it was out-of-season. When Dora pressed, he said there were no rooms in any of the hotels on the boardwalk. She saw evidence, albeit slim, of guests slumped in tatty upholstered wing chairs or slowly wheeling their walkers over the oriental carpet. An aging bellboy in a dark blue uniform shiny with regret, his too-short pants exposing white tube socks and black lace-up orthopedic shoes, stared dumbly at the quiet bank of elevators. Gift shops in the lengthy hotel corridor displayed crystal sailing ships and cast iron statuettes of baseball players. Sensing her confusion, the clerk admitted that a few residents remained, but the hotel was no longer taking guests. He’d shrugged and said it would all be torn down anyway.
Dora, undeterred, had taken a second glance around the circular lobby, as if to challenge his news. Little white letters were missing from summer convention schedules still tacked to a ribbed black board: As ury P k, Ca den. There were almost no gaps where room keys hung like skeletal fingers. Darkened pigeonholes behind the desk held no mail. The fireplaces were unlit. Walls and curtains had faded to the same aquatic shade: more poorly-maintained pool than surging ocean. Another peek at the floor suggested her carpetbag was in better shape than the rug.
The clerk’s parting words rang in her ears: “It’s gonna be the only room you’ll get around here if you insist on staying.” He’d directed her further down the boardwalk, much further. Dora stared ahead at the choppy slate-colored ocean, looking for a natural resolution to her dilemma. Naïve bravery directed her, the heaving Atlantic Ocean on her right and crumbling dreams on her left, until she found the place. Paint peeled like sunburn from its pink exterior. She knew it was cheap. She also had a vague suspicion that guests booked rooms by the hour.
Dora Bauer stood before the man at the desk, who appeared to be taken aback by her presence until she explained who had sent her there. Her long, honey-blond hair hung in damp plaits over her shoulders. Her cheeks shone brightly from winter’s vigorous and salty caress. He watched as she unwound a ridiculously long scarf from her neck, unbuttoned the pea coat and revealed a red plaid flannel shirt. His gaze went first to her snug blue jeans, and then dropped to the bulging carpetbag alongside her sturdy boots mustached with salt. She was twenty-eight. She assured him she wanted a room for two nights and handed him the cash. When she spotted a manual typewriter atop a pile of damp-cured telephone books and asked if she could borrow it while she was there, he was too stunned to say no. She shouldered the bag and he hoisted the typewriter into her waiting arms.
The room was dark. On impulse, Dora reached for the drapes. In the rear of the motel were trashcans choked with empty liquor bottles. She dropped her hand and quickly returned to the light switch by the door. A moribund space heater in the bathroom doorway was the first thing she noticed in the stark yellow light. A cautious peek revealed a shower she was certain never to set foot in. There was a sink stained from forgettable stories and a toilet covered with a wrinkled paper strap, dubious reassurance. A utilitarian blonde-wood table and chair reminded her of her own little desk when she was a girl. There was no sign of a television. No mirror in the room. Hanging above the bed was a dime store seascape, almost a boast.
Music came from somewhere; from a radio or perhaps a cassette recorder in another room: You got your demons. You got desires. Well, I got a few of my own. Dora smiled and began emptying the contents of her bag onto the flimsy chenille bedspread. She unscrewed the cap on the bourbon bottle and thought better of it. Suddenly she was ravenous.
Back at the luncheonette, Dora ordered from the younger man behind the counter. He was a boy, really, his hairless face scarred by acne. It was too late for the breakfast special, he told her and she, big spender, waved off his concern. Where was she from, he asked and she told him, New York. “Goin’ back home tonight then?” he asked. Dora shook her head. He frowned. “Not goin’ home for Christmas?”
On the wall behind him was a decorative serving tray illustrated with an apple-cheeked Santa raising a bottle of Coca Cola to his full, pursed lips, buttoned into a foamy froth of beard. As if she needed to be reminded of the holiday. Her prospects were dashed when he revealed that the luncheonette would be closed on Christmas Day. He promised that she could still get dinner that night if she was back there by five o’clock, maybe earlier, depending on the customers. Dora lowered her head over the plate, and avoiding what she imagined was barefaced appraisal of her, she wolfed down bacon and eggs. She tipped the young man and said she’d see him later.
By the third sighting of the massive Convention Center, which was her sign to turn around and head back toward the motel, Dora knew that strip of the boardwalk: Fralinger’s salt water taffy, Planter’s Peanuts, a deserted pier. It was, after all, the longest boardwalk in the country—maybe even the world—and Dora figured though she had not gone the actual full length of it, she had already walked at least that far in her determined circumnavigation. By the fifth go-around she was nodding slightly to some of the same people doing the same thing: walking, walking and more walking.
The old women walked slowly in pairs, some as a trio, their arms interlocked. Perhaps they feared falling. A newcomer was advised what things she’d need in the summer. Some of the men, also seniors, strolled in pairs. Others walked alone, but a modest show of recognition was made in passing. One couple of indeterminate gender eyed Dora with curiosity. She tried to imagine the place heaving with vacationers, children with broiled shoulders, the smell of suntan lotion hanging heavily on salty breezes sweetened with cotton candy.
But the air was frigid and smelled only of churning sea. The auctions were silenced; no sign of a toaster, clock radio, blender or iron. Street lamps arched over the boardwalk like skeletal giants with humps. The gray-green of the sky fell into the sea. Waves broke loudly, a never-ending accompaniment to her footfalls. The fire-engine-red façade of Banko Games shocked the colorless canvas of winter.
Dora paused on the boardwalk at a row of wooden benches backed by the sea. She decided to sit for a moment and, like a seagull eyeing a scrap of food, let her mind alight on why she’d come here. She was done thinking about her marriage—that sinister lie. She was an artist again, a painter, and it was time to find a way to sustain that reality. Perhaps a recent proposal was a way out for her.
Dr. Jack O’Hanlon. It was not hard to reconcile the Catholic schoolboy—a taut equivocal teenager managed by priests—with the meticulously and expensively dressed man. Jack had been Dora’s first serious boyfriend. When she’d dumped him after high school he’d been distraught. She’d moved on. He’d chosen the psychiatric profession. In a drugstore near the hospital complex where her husband had a lab she’d overheard the pharmacist address a familiar looking red-haired man in front of her as Dr. O’Hanlon. After a discomfited fumble with pat phrases about looking well and not having changed a bit, they’d exchanged phone numbers. He called. She was already separated. Could he see her? And pretty soon he was in her studio, listening to her as she prattled on about her misconceived marriage, her passionate commitment to her art, her lack of money. He had money. He made an offer.
Dora stretched her legs and rose with a start. She had no watch. The sudden dark hurried her back to the luncheonette.
Inside it was warmer than it had been that morning. Elderly patrons, slouched over the counter spooning soup, took up all but one of the stools. It was like a meeting of gnarled victims of osteoporosis, replete with the smokers’ cloud. She slid onto the vacant seat. The same young man hurried to her, barely able to suppress his elation. He was maybe 15 or 16, a tall drink of water as her uncle would say. His white coat was unbuttoned, revealing a blue and green paisley shirt, top three buttons undone. A ponderous medallion shone from his hairless chest. She stared at the balance scales engraved on the medallion.
“Libra?” she asked.
“Yes!” He said he was really good with people, able to see both sides of a situation. “What about you?” he asked.
She told him she was a Leo, and without quite knowing why, she added, smiling: “It gets me into trouble.”
He frowned a little at that. “What’ll you have?”
Dora asked for a grilled cheese and a coke.
“Just plain?” he asked. “How about some bacon or a tomato?”
“Nope. Just plain grilled cheese.”
When he returned with an embellished sandwich he placed it before her and said, “It’s Christmas Eve, you should at least have a tomato.” He winked. “On me.”
She left with a bagful of snacks: potato chips, pretzels, one of those toy sand pails filled with salt water taffy, and a small carton of milk. Dora was touched that he’d remembered their earlier conversation, such as it was. She felt looked after. Heartened, she decided to call her aunt. She had a pocketful of coins he’d changed for her. The pay phone was just outside the motel.
“Uncle Frank. It’s me, Dora.”
After the first tentative hello from him there was silence. He was forgetful and prone to staring blankly. It drove her aunt crazy.
“Hey, Dorrie,” he croaked. “How’s my girl? Your aunt is at mass, I think. Where are you, hon?”
She said she was in Atlantic City and before he could ask she told him she just wanted to be on her own. She was okay. Fine, really.
“Hey, Uncle Frank. Listen to this.” She held the receiver in the air, facing the sea. “Can you hear it? It’s the Atlantic ocean!”
He said he could. Where was she again?
Back in her room, Dora hunched over the typewriter. She peeled a sheet of yellow legal paper from the machine and added it to the jumble beside her. She’d dragged the little table to the bottom of the bed. Proust had been abandoned because she could not ignore the rather less refined drama outside her door. Rimbaud and Baudelaire met the same fate. The unread paperbacks lay among the contents of her bag, strewn across the bed. She took another swig of bourbon, left the bottle uncapped and lit up a Dunhill. Warmed by the alcohol, she was finally able to discard the woolen scarf.
The noise outside her room was getting louder. Doors slammed. Shouting that sounded like argument or joviality—she couldn’t tell half the time—was ceaseless. Sometimes it seemed like voices changed sooner than hourly. Barry White’s steamy bass oozed through the thin walls. Earlier there had been vigorous banging on her door. A man’s voice hollered to let him in. She ignored it and carefully wedged the only chair under the doorknob. “Sheila!” he yelled. “You ain’t changed your mind?” Dora hollered forcefully: “Wrong Room!” He was instantly pacified and mumbled an apology. A few seconds later she heard him further down the corridor, banging on another door looking for Sheila.
Dora was getting nowhere with the letter to her potential benefactor. Myriad versions rolled through the typewriter. She argued with herself over the letter’s tone; should she be warmly appreciative or coolly nonchalant? He could be playing with her, all that history. And how to make perfectly clear this would be strictly a business arrangement. Jack had taken her to dinner a few times to a few different places, all intimately expensive venues. He’d enjoyed her surprise when waiters deferred to him and he’d quietly boasted that he owned those restaurants in addition to a thriving practice. But evening’s end brought a rebuff from her when he’d suggested more. She told him she wasn’t ready yet. The divorce. It was too soon.
But, in fact, Dora had been game for lovers the moment she’d decided that her marriage was over.
In the freezing bathroom she inhaled on a joint. Not that she imagined anyone on the other side of the door would notice. The pungent aroma had been hanging around all night. She was only adding to it. Stoned, she settled on the bed against an anemic pillow, reluctant to discover what lurked between the sheets. She remained dressed, bundled in a thick, ribbed fisherman sweater, and had removed only her boots. She’d added a second pair of socks and draped her coat across her lap. Oh, she’d had and still had lovers; made up for lost time all right. She debated reopening the bourbon bottle. She popped a pretzel into her mouth and rolled the salty nugget with her tongue.
Maybe the problem was that despite his offer to bankroll her artistic pursuit, Jack did not seem to get the new work. He’d even admitted to it, finding it odd that she, a self-professed painter, was using only graphite on primed linen canvas. He thought the draftsmanship—was that the word—superb, but why no color? He was only a little less bemused when she’d explained the point of the series. It was called Tagasode. Some 16th-century Japanese panels exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum had inspired her. Paintings of lavish kimonos, heedlessly left behind, evoked a stronger image of the person than the owner’s actual presence. Tagasode translated as, “Whose sleeves?”
He’d asked her to describe each canvas; what, or more specifically whom, the articles of clothing represented, but she’d put him off. “Well,” Jack quipped, “it’s certainly a departure from your dead flowers.”
When he’d first viewed her work, he’d bluntly asked what she was afraid of. At the time, off-putting as his question was, she’d attributed the remark to his role as a psychiatrist. He probably couldn’t help himself. But the question haunted her. Was she afraid? And if she was, what was she afraid of? She was on her own in Atlantic City, wasn’t she? Her list of lovers was long and varied, some might even say indiscriminate. Perhaps the monochromatic drawings of dead flowers—blown-up images on canvases as large as 6 feet square—were a bit on the gothic side. Thorny roses and velvet-soft gardenias, with titles like Misgivings and Things Past.
An artist works through pain. Left behind freely or mistakenly, the articles of clothing that had been immortalized in Tagasode were proof that she had triumphed over romanticized love. She was in control, free of the messy color of relationships. Each canvas was simply titled with an initial.
D graced her with his Burberry raincoat, explaining to his long-term girlfriend that he had left it in a bar somewhere. Fragile and aristocratic and so enthralled was he with Dora’s streetwise nature, her humble origins, that he allowed her to portray their secret affair.
K was his unsuspecting roommate who, while never imagining Dora was monogamous, would have been crushed to learn of her affair with D. He loaned her a tattered sweater, which he felt represented his life as a penurious philosopher.
The leather bomber jacket came from T. Irish journalist, bisexual. He was mad about Dora. She rivaled his passion, his energy and his devotion to craft. She held her own in any topical argument and matched him drink for drink.
C was another painter, a handsome black man who was obscenely talented and given to stylish dress. He was married to a woman Dora adored. He said he was going to leave her. He left Dora, instead, with a white linen handkerchief.
She met A in St. Mark’s Bookshop, in the poetry section. After some hours of marvelously convoluted conversation at the bar in the Lion’s Head, they spent one drunken night together. The Argentine student left his paisley scarf behind.
J—a woman—was probably not speaking to her. Dora would heal that breach at some point, but meanwhile J had left her cashmere scarf behind and that would do.
P was her ex-husband’s best friend. Dora’s cross-country getaway happened in the unraveling year before their separation. At her husband’s suggestion she stayed with P in Laguna Beach. Her husband thought the trip would be good for her. She knew her absence would be good for him. Out of revenge she’d slept with P. His tagasode was the only departure; a roach clip she’d filched from an ashtray.
Another C was a comedy writer. He was the only cynic among her lovers and he’d fallen in love with the unattainable Dora. She had just finished his prized Chicago Cubs t-shirt.
Dora jerked awake. Her limbs were stiff, her mouth a dank cave of dry patches. Dazed, she looked around and gauged her surroundings. A chink of light split the exhausted drapes. She had no idea what time it was. The last thing she remembered was that the hallway ruckus had quieted down and she’d closed her eyes to Elton John singing, Someone saved my life tonight….
A low, blustery sky beyond the pier in the distance—a scene not airy enough to be Turner—reminded her more of the Dutch masters’ dense, sardonic clouds. She stood at the edge of the ocean where the tide lapped the tips of her boots. The sleepy stranger at the desk only nodded when she said she’d be back in a bit. Just going for a walk, she told him and waved her key at him.
The gritty beach was the same color as the squealing dirty gulls, reprimanding her for coming empty-handed. The sun was already quite low in the sky. Dora dragged her boot in the hard sand, forming Jack’s initials, the natural resolution she looked for when all else failed.
The wallop of the incoming tide caused her to jump back. The initials were washed away.
It was fucking freezing and Dora laughed out loud. Her breath hung before her like an illusory curtain to be parted and stepped through.
At the motel she stopped to call her aunt again.
“Where are you?” her aunt demanded.
“I’m in Atlantic City. Didn’t Uncle Frank tell you?”
“Oh, my Lord,” her aunt moaned. “Frankie did tell me. I thought he was crazy and I yelled at him.”
Dora laughed and soon they were both laughing.
“When are you coming home, hon?”
“Soon, Aunt Fran,” she replied. “I’ll see you soon.”
“Wait!” her aunt cried. “I want to hear the ocean too.”
The milk carton was gone from the windowsill where she’d left it to keep cold. Dora still had an unopened bag of chips. That would do until she got home. She left the unfinished bottle of bourbon on the table. The pail of taffy would delight her aunt. She dropped the typewriter on the counter before the bewildered clerk. Adjusting a lighter bag on her shoulder, Dora Bauer waved good-bye. She’d wait at the bus station for the next bus home. She had plenty to read.
Linda Danz was born on New York’s Lower East Side, and studied at the Art Students League. For many years, she balanced life as a painter with her job as an art director in the corporate world of magazine publishing. When that world showed her the door, she turned her art to writing. Her first novel, A Birdhouse in Brooklyn, was published in 2015. Many of her short stories are about New York City, the place she loves and knows intimately. Linda lives on the Upper East Side, co-writes with her singer/songwriter husband, Paul Fairall, and shares her desk with their two cats.