The day before her thirtieth birthday, Sally Pivot catches the nine thirty D train up to rip pages out of books at the New York Public Library. She is dressed like so: jeans, black, tight. Dress shirt, black (Fred’s), loose. Messenger bag, black, empty. Hair, black, razor-chopped. Keds, white, pristine. She is armed with a foot ruler in her back pocket. Security doesn’t notice.
She does directly to the poetry section on the second floor. It’s a Saturday, so Graham, who oversees the section, won’t be in. Graham’s as much as told her he doesn’t care for modern poetry (anything this century), and is himself about a hundred years old, but he’s stocked all the titles Sally’s suggested. She goes about like a housewife in a produce section, plucking from the shelves, hefting, examining. She begins to accumulate a stack. Mallarme’s Roll of the Dice. Poemes Saturniens by Verlaine. Fragments of Sappho. Howl and Coney Island of the Mind and Minutes to Go. Two feet worth of poems. Cheaper in bulk. Since she has the ruler, she measures. Twenty-three and a half inches. She adds Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency to the pile.
She finds a corner with no windows. No one’s around except an old guy who looks as interested as Sally in not being seen. He’s sitting on the floor, a big art book open in his lap. One hand turns the pages, the other is in his pants. They eye each other. Sally does a bit of Chaplin schtick, shifting the books so they counterweight her scrawny frame. The pile almost topples to the right and she swings right to compensate. The pile veers left and she hopsteps three times on her left foot to regain balance. The man chuckles, withdraws the hand from his pants and applauds politely. Sally gives a little curtsey. Then he shoves his hand back down and returns his attention to his book, which rocks in his lap like a buoy at sea.
Sally sets the stack on a table and lays the ruler down next to it. She selects her first victim. Rilke. Germans should always be first against the wall. She rifles the pages and finds the poems she’s looking for, the fifth elegy. But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more/transient than we are ourselves, and all the rest of that happy horseshit. She lines the ruler along the lefthand margin and, using the trick Nicholson pulled in Chinatown, sneezes as she tears. She holds the severed page up like a day old dead fish. She marvels at the clean rip. Just like in the movies. She and Bastian went to see it at the Waverly last year. Depressing as fuck, so he’d loved it. Sally just wanted to stare into that hole in Faye Dunaway’s face, but they never let you.
She stuffs the page in her messenger bag, shuts the book, and chooses another.
This goes on for the better part of an hour. Could have been quicker, but Sally pauses often to look over her shoulder. When she was a kid, her mom told her the library police would come and arrest her if her books were ever overdue. She can’t help imagine the Library Policeman, just the way she’d seen him as a kid, a cross between Bogie and the Shadow, prowling the stacks, looking for her.
When she’s done and her bag is full, she tips an imaginary hat to the old man. His face has the slack expression boys’ faces get when they’ve just come. That dumb vacant stare. He shakes himself back to cognizance and says, “You ain’t supposed to do that.” His voice is thick and sleepy.
Sally smirks. “What you reading?” she asks. He spins the book, quite possibly on the end of his dick, so she can take a look. Black and white drawings of naked women in an art deco style, intricate vines and lattices framing them.
“Beardsley,” he says. “Great lines, nice and thick. And all the girls have great big asses.” He gives Sally a once over. “I used to do posters for the nudie shows in Times Square. Now they use photos.” He turns his head and spits on the marble floor. “Trashy.”
“Progress,” says Sally, shaking her head.
“Come by next week and I’ll show you my etchings,” he says.
“Raincheck,” says Sally as she pirouettes away. It’s a word she’s never understood, so she uses it to mean something like only if it rains in July, which this year seems impossible.
In Bryant Park, she makes a little circle of stones and fills it with twigs and cigarette ends and newspaper scraps. Everything is dry, the twigs snap, brittle. They take the first match, and she sits in front of a fire the size of a woman’s hat. She pulls a page at random out of her bag. While Someone Telephones by Elizabeth Bishop. Good fit.
“Wasted, wasted minutes that couldn’t be worse,” she reads, then sets the page to flame. It’s not the strangest thing happening in the Park. The Hare Krishnas with their topknots and their tambourines spin dervishlike under an elm. An old woman tries to lure pigeons into a sack. Kids pass around a joint the size of a hog’s leg. What do you even have to do to be weird anymore?
Sally burns the pages one by one. She pauses at one of Bill’s. He’s staying at the Chelsea lately. The other day he showed up at her door with a trout wrapped in newspaper. “Girl’s gotta eat,” he told her, and after borrowing a cast iron pan from Hecate next door, proceeded to fry it up on Sally’s stove, producing seasonings from his pockets. Sally and Hecate watched him cook it, Sally still in pajamas, Hecate half ready for the matinee show at Flamingo, make up done but wig still on the dresser. Bill had watched the two of them eat the whole fish between them, eschewing all compliments, then wrapped the bones back in the newspaper and went upstairs to shoot up. It was a strange and sweet thing to do, but a poem’s a poem, so into the fire it goes.
Sally is ten minutes early to meet Fred at Tavern on the Green. The maître d won’t seat her, so she lurks near his stand, scowling. Her hands are black with ashes. Fred shows up right on time and cowboy handsome. A day’s worth of stubble he trims back to a day’s worth every morning to avoid looking respectable. It doesn’t work. The maître d apologizes profusely to her and Sally turns her nose up at him. Fred asks her what she’s been up to.
“Working on some poems,” Sally says.
Things Sally is lying to Fred about these days: her birthday plans, how much she liked his last play, how much she cares that he’s married. Things she is lying about by omission: her knowledge of his wife’s phone number, her plans for the afternoon.
When the waiter comes around, Sally orders the lobster humidor. It’s Tom’s joke, or maybe Sebastian’s. Fred’s never had any patience for it and for the hundredth time, Sally wonders how much he’s going to tolerate, what she can do to make him snap.
“Very good, miss,” says the waiter.
“Yes, I am,” says Sally.
The sex, by the way, is fantastic. It is the Platonic ideal of Sex. It is spelled with a capital S. The hot dry air of her room sucks the sweat off their bodies, eats it. Fred rolls over and finds the pack of cigarette in his jeans. He offers one to Sally, who tells him she doesn’t smoke. She’s lying about that too.
When she’d met him, he was playing drums for the Traveling Salvation Foundation, a kind of post-hippie holdover band. He wasn’t any good, but she’d told him he was. The whole band was awful, they strived to be terrible and hit it out of the park. He said his name was Frank Quitely, which she believed because anyway who cared about names? A few weeks in, she started to wonder where the money was coming from. He’d buy her steaks at Max’s, and he bought her a fur coat, chinchilla, which she’d pawned and bought photography books at Gotham Book Mart, the kind she couldn’t afford. One night at Max’s, Hecate, who’d been on a tour of the Midwest, pulled her aside. “Honey, what are you doing with Fred Hammersmith?”
Sally shook her head, no idea who she was talking about. Hecate dug into her carpetbag and came up with a copy of the Village Voice. There was a full page ad for Love In!, a musical by Fred Hammersmith. Sally had heard of it, it was hippie nostalgia porn. All the songs sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and then all the girls took their tops off. Very cutting edge if you were from the sticks. Still she didn’t know what it had to do with Frank until Hecate explained Frank and Fred were one and the same, except that Frank didn’t exist.
“No need for that to spoil dinner,” he told her when she got back to the table. And really it wasn’t. That night, lying next to him in her room, Sally assessed the size and weight of that lie and determined that she would tell him enough to balance it. Each one would be tiny, but in their aggregate, they would be the equivalent of three weeks under a fake name.
A week later, he’d come clean about his wife, who was in San Francisco with their son. But that hadn’t been so much a lie as an omission. So Sally began leaving out truths, amassing a pile of omissions equal to a wife. She’s almost there.
“Quiet in here today,” he says, pulling her in close. He smells like scrubbed leather.
“It’s the middle of the afternoon,” she says. “Everyone’s asleep.” She sees him making a mental note of this. Fred’s working on the follow-up to Love In!, which is into the third year of its run. It’s called Chelsea. No exclamation point. The set will be made out of cubes, each one representing a room at the hotel. The cast will be junkies and whores and transvestites and the ghost of Janis Joplin. Sometimes, if Sally falls asleep after sex, Fred sneaks out and walks the halls, gathering material. This is not a secret. He’s commissioned Sally to write two songs for Janis’s ghost to sing. She didn’t want to do it, but Sebastian said she had to because of the money, but she had to promise to make them awful. Sally’s not a songwriter, she’s a poet, and after today she’s not that anymore either. But she came up with them, two lurching monstrosities out of a Kurl Weill fever dream. She played them for him on the piano in Hecate’s room. Fred said he loved them and Sally just grinned.
He’s putting on his pants. Sally checks the alarm clock on the floor.
“I have a surprise for you at the rehearsal tomorrow,” he says.
“My ninth birthday we had a surprise party,” she says, trying to tug his pants back off. “When everyone jumped out, I pissed my pants.” No part of this is true.
“Maybe I should tell you now then,” he says, sitting down next to her on the bed. He has no intention of staying longer, his face says he’s already down the block.
“Tell me now,” she says.
“We got the rights to a couple actual Janis songs,” he says. “Turns out she didn’t write almost any of them. One of producers did some digging and you can trace most of the rights to some broke songwriter in Mussel Shoals most of the time. Bought them right up.” He grins at her, all those perfect prep school teeth of his. She wants to punch him. “You’ll still get paid,” he assures her. “You worked so hard.”
“That’s great,” she says. “For the play. It’ll be great.” She hands him his shirt.
“No,” says Sally. This is true, not that he’d question it. He finishes dressing and leaves in a flurry of promises. Big day tomorrow, anything she wants. She kisses him in the doorway, holding it for a moment longer than usual, putting it on the fire.
Hectate knocks two minutes after he’s gone.
“Christ, woman, it sounded like you were possessed by the devil.”
“I’m not possessed by no one,” says Sally.
“Fair enough,” says Hecate. She’s skipping the Saturday matinee show to help out. She’s in cut off jeans and a Josie and the Pussycats tee shirt. “Flora’s got a bunch of boxes,” she says. She scans the room. “Shouldn’t take more than a couple. You sure you’re ready to leave us?”
Sally has been the unofficial poet in residence at the Chelsea since 1968. She’d sat in the stairwell smoking grass with Hendrix the night he opened Electric Lady Studio. She’d comforted Janis after a party where the boy she liked went off and fucked someone else. She’d packed beat poets into this very room until you had to climb right over Allen Ginsberg’s bald head to get a drink. She hadn’t written a poem in almost a year. And today the country turned two hundred, and tomorrow Sally turned thirty.
“Let’s get this shit out of here,” she says.