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AGNES AMONG THE GARGOYLES

by

Patrick Flynn


Chapter One

 

Infertility: The Magazine for Prospective Parents in Crisis is put together by an editorial staff with an average age of about 25. The writers have yet to face the problems they write about. For many of them, this is their first job after college. The phone calls that flood the switchboard daily come not from spouses or anguished mistresses but from boyfriends and girlfriends and parents.

The atmosphere is casual and raucous. The buzzing noise in the air has three sources: the air conditioning, the fluorescent lights, and earphone leakage from Walkmen pounding into young heads. The walls are covered with snapshots taken at Hunter Mountain and Mardi Gras, with Soap Opera Hunk calendars, with pages from the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated–with an occasional "Sexist!" annotated across a navel.

The managing editor of Infertility is Agnes Travertine. Agnes is small and tough looking, with hooded eyelids and an overbite. She is 34 years old. Her co-workers make her feel ancient. Why do they wear such bright colors? Their expensive clothing, their shining teeth, their sheer cleanliness–everything about them betokens enthusiasm. They actually seem happy to be at work, which mystifies Agnes. The staff calls her cubicle "The Gulag," because she won’t decorate it, lest someone think the time she spends there is in any way tolerable. The walls are bare except for a framed photograph of the Astor Hotel, which once stood on the site now occupied by the Infertility offices.?

It is 8:30 in the morning of a cold, crisp day in the latter half of the glorious 1980s. Agnes reads a newspaper at her desk. She sees movement in the corner of her eye. Two of the boys who write for the magazine have come in early and are stalking each other, continuing the game of pursuit they began yesterday. On weekends, they go to the woods and shoot paintballs at each other.

When did men become so insubstantial? They flap around in Jams at the beach and it seems that the wind might carry them away. They wear Hawaiian shirts to Carumba! and you want to brush down their cowlicks for them.

God, in Agnes’s day things were different. The men were men. They had beards and yards of heavy hair, and they spouted foulmouthed intellectual cant until your ears rang. They even looked bigger because they wore so many clothes, so many layers of down and flannel, heavy work boots, black trousers in August.

In the newspaper is a story about Ronald Wegeman, the real estate developer. Today he will dedicate his latest architectural nightmare, his latest abomination in steel and glass, One Wegeman Plaza at Grand Central Station. The article fawns over its subject. It says that Wegeman is leaving his mark on the city in a way that no man has for decades. His employees call him the Great Man. His friends call him Weege. He is a meeter of payrolls and a buster of bureaucracies. He is a billionaire! His gorgeous wife used to be a model! He gets things done! And if he likes to leave his name on everything that he buys or builds, well, Andrew Carnegie didn’t call it the 57th Street Music Hall, did he?

The mayor, the newspapers, the TV correspondents, they all dance to the Wegeman tune. It’s disgusting. Agnes sighs. It seems that a healthy mistrust of the powerful dried up around the time that Infertility went from being a ratty little newsletter about holistic healing to the glossy bible for affluent professionals with low sperm counts and tipped uteri. Infertility used to be a loose and funky place to work. It was the sort of office where telephone messages might never get delivered; the people leaving the messages knew that, and left them three or four times. Now the reception area with its great parabolic desk is bigger than the whole office was when Agnes started.

Agnes puts her navy pumps in her bag. (She never actually wears the shoes; they just sit on her desk each day like a talisman.) She puts on her polo coat. She sneaks down the fire stairs and waits for the elevator on the floor below. By the time she is out of the tinny, insubstantial, unadorned and cheaply made office tower for which they demolished the Astor Hotel, she is sweating with anxiety.

She will probably never return.

She tries to take in every sensation. The escalator’s leather banister moves just a bit more slowly than the steps. The soup of the day at Petra’s is cream of broccoli.

She walks down 44th Street, striding heedlessly across the cellar doors set flush with the sidewalk. They buckle under her weight then snap back, like metal trampolines.


Chapter Two

 

Agnes stops to call her mother from a pay phone.

"Hi, Ma. It’s me. I called you earlier–where were you?"

"I just got back from the Social Security office," says Hannah Travertine. "Now I’m curled up with a Basil Spinet and I’m perfectly content. Have you ever read Broken Step, Broken Neck?"

"No."

"Did you see it on PBS?"

"Ma, I can’t even remember if Basil Spinet is the author or the detective."

"He’s the author, dear. The detective is Lucius Viscount Rumbelow."

"I won’t remember two seconds from now."

"It’s very easy," says Hannah. "The detective is the nobleman. How many noblemen do you see writing books these days?"

"I’ve already forgotten which is which."

Hannah sighs mightily. "Well, it’s very good. The killer’s identity hinges on the different designs of the little footbridges that cross the Thames. It’s fascinating."

It sounds vaguely familiar to Agnes. "Haven’t you read that one before?"

"Well, yes. But I’m out of books here. I haven’t gotten into Manhattan to go to the library."

"Ma, you have a perfectly good library a bus ride away."

"The people here don’t read what I read."

"A library is a library."

"And Queens is a cultural desert," says Hannah. "I’m not interested in books on bowling."

"Bowling? Jesus, Ma. I can’t discuss this. It’s too silly. Why were you at Social Security?"

"I went down to check on my benefits."

It’s about time, thinks Agnes. This is the year Hannah will retire.

"What did they say?"

"Well, I won’t be getting as much as I thought."

"I hate to say I told you so."

"Then please don’t."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I’ve always managed quite nicely, thank you," says Hannah.

"Oh, you have not," says Agnes, giggling merrily. "Don’t be absurd."

"I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?"

"You’re not dead in the street, no," says her daughter.

Agnes started organizing her mother’s finances for her when she discovered that Hannah was closing in on retirement with $979.60 in the bank.

"That’s it?" Agnes was incredulous.

"I shouldn’t have gotten the radio fixed," says Hannah. "I like to keep that account over a thousand."

Where did the money go? Hannah’s father, a union official, made a decent living. He was a teetotaler; he brought home his check. After he died, Hannah received Social Security and Veteran’s benefits for Agnes. Hannah always worked, and her rent was low. Before Agnes was born, her sister Brigette was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Agnes isn’t sure how much money they got for that.

It is Agnes’s theory that Hannah simply decided at some point that she was a poor person, and so ducked responsibility for any future financial difficulty. It was out of the question for poor people to save money. Poor people lived only for the moment, deserving of any small luxury to distract them from their poverty. And so Hannah never saved a dime. The money went in theater tickets, in dinners out, in small vacations, in prissy clothing for Agnes, which Agnes refused to wear.

When the $979.60 came to light, the first thing Agnes did was get her mother into a studio apartment in a rent stabilized building in Kew Gardens. This took an enormous amount of time and money, but Agnes was happy with the results. Hannah’s new building, The Parisienne, was beautifully maintained. The landlord, an Englishman named Nigel Davies, had a morbid fear of being sued for injuries resulting from poor upkeep of his property. "That’s what you want in a landlord, Ma," said Agnes giddily. Agnes found out that Nigel Davies owned a dozen buildings, most of which had already gone co-op. At last Hannah just might own something. But Hannah didn’t even want to move in. She balked at signing the lease.

"I don’t know," she said, pen poised. "What if I want to move out before my two years are up?"

"Move out?" said Agnes, horrified. "Where are you going?"

"I don’t know. But I’d hate to box myself in. These leases are impossible to break."

Agnes pulled her mother over to a corner of the management office. She whispered in her ear:

"Ma, sign the fucking lease."

"All right, Agnes," said her mother. Her lip curled with sarcasm. "I always wanted to put down roots in Queens. Queens, of all places!"

When the building eventually did go co-op Agnes was overjoyed. She learned that it was happening when she visited her mother and saw workmen changing the awning. The name of the building was being changed from The Parisienne to The Bristol. Nigel Davies had sponsored another co-op named The Parisienne; obviously, this name change was to eliminate legal confusion. Agnes rushed to tell Hannah, who was not convinced.

"Don’t jump to conclusions," she cautioned her daughter. "I’m surprised he didn’t change the name before."

"Why?"

"Agnes, the British are notoriously Francophobic."

Agnes puts some more money in the pay phone. She has done as much as she can for her mother, more than many daughters would have.

"Ma, here’s why I called," she says, fighting a swell of sentiment. She might not see her mother again for a very long time. She might never see her again. "In your top dresser drawer there’s a manila envelope. Look and see if it’s still there, okay?"

After a minute Hannah returns to the phone. "Yes, here it is."

"Ma, that’s all my financial stuff: my bankbooks and account statements, my stock portfolio, insurance, profit sharing–everything."

"What’s it doing here?"

Agnes lies. "I left it there by accident. Your name is on everything. I want you to know that in case something should happen to me."

"Don’t be so gloomy," says Hannah.

"You know that I love you, Ma."

"Of course."

"And I really do try to take care of things, don’t I?"

"You’re wonderful," says Hannah. "Didn’t you get me my condo?"

Why must Hannah spoil this poignant moment?

"Co-op, Ma."

"Hmmm?"

"It’s not a condo. It’s a co-op. You may need to know that."

"I own it, so I figure I can call it whatever I want," says Hannah.

"And Agnes?

"Yes?"

"Stay out of my drawers, love."


Chapter Three

 

It is a bitterly cold afternoon, but Agnes is just barely aware of the weather’s effects, the stiffness in her face and ache in her fillings.

When Ronald Wegeman acquired the air rights to Grand Central Station, Agnes thought she was the only one in the world who cared that he planned to take the railroad terminal, which might be the most glorious structure in Manhattan, and reduce it to a plinth. Would he actually go through with it? Would he desecrate the Beaux-Arts masterpiece?

Of course he would. One Wegeman Plaza at Grand Central Station is a granite-sheathed column of unvarying width capped by a golden dome. It rises inappropriately from the top of the railroad terminal like a thirty-story middle finger.

Agnes hurries toward the dedication ceremonies. She reaches the edge of the crowd of spectators and stops dead.

Another piece of New York is gone.

The Hotel Anacosta was a gorgeous little welfare hotel. With its balconies, dormers, and piled-up roofs, it looked like a dollhouse-sized version of the Plaza.

Agnes peers through a knothole in the fence. She is drawn to such places the way a tongue is drawn to the place where a tooth has been pulled. Through the hole she sees a TV truck parked beside a scaffold. Cameras perch on the scaffold like metal vultures. The cameras point at the platform where the dedication ceremonies will take place. The cameras are from WEGE, Wegeman’s cable network.

Agnes rages. Wegeman has torn down the Anacosta for a good camera angle!

Being small, and a woman, and having the fearsome look of someone on urgent business, Agnes has no difficulty maneuvering to the front of the crowd. She stands directly in front of the platform, which is festooned with flags and bunting. The Wegeman Development Corporation has its own flag. The field is navy blue; the device, in white, is a Hirschfeldian caricature of the Great Man himself.

Agnes watches, simmering.

One freezing politico after another struggles from his folding chair and clutches the rostrum. After the borough president and the junior senator and the governor comes Clark Ho, the Hawaiian architect who has designed nearly all of Wegeman’s atrocities. Epicene and bullet headed, Clark Ho wears black circular eyeglasses in the style of Le Corbusier.

Clark Ho begins with a joke. "I understand there are some parts of New York where the reception is clear and cable television isn’t needed and the inhabitants are denied the pleasures of watching WEGE. Ron tells me that he won’t rest until he has buildings interfering with the microwaves in every part of the city!"

This is no joke.

Ho grins. "I say, Weege, go for it!"

Where is Wegeman, anyway? Agnes doesn’t see him anywhere. It would be typical of the arrogant prick to be too busy to attend the opening ceremonies for what would be anyone else’s crowning achievement.

Where, for that matter, is the Telamones Society? At the last meeting Agnes attended, everyone was fired up to stage a big anti-Wegeman demonstration. So many of the members of the society look down their wealthy noses at Agnes, but only she is enough of a good soldier to show up when it counts.

The Telamones Society is a private watchdog organization devoted to the preservation of New York City’s historic architecture. The society sponsors lectures and classes and walking tours. It sends a representative to hearings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Telamones members picket the construction of new high-rises, and mount petitions against the demolition of structures that have not attained landmark status.

The society’s name derives from classical Greek architecture. Telamones are representations of the human figure used instead of pillars for support. Male figures are called atlantes; female, caryatids. You see quite a few atlantes and caryatids at the society’s Halloween bash.

The Telamones Society is made up of educated, reasonable people. They picket and protest and post marvelously written letters of complaint and Ronald Wegeman continues to run roughshod over the city. Agnes has come to believe that the biggest problem with the Telamones Society is that it lacks a violent wing.

There is a pistol in Agnes’s purse.

She bought it last year in Kentucky. It was not a spur-of-the-moment purchase, a souvenir of bluegrass country. Agnes chose Kentucky for her vacation because she knew it would be reasonably easy to buy a handgun there. She went alone, telling no one where she was going. When she returned, she said that she had been in Frankfurt, Glasgow and Versailles, which was true. The bus from Lexington stopped in all three places.

She paid $175 for a 1979 .38 Smith Johnson Police Special–a "Gandalf," the gun of choice in the 1960s for the Weather Underground.

The dedication ceremonies drag on in the cold. The mayor has just begun his remarks when a limousine parts the crowd and pulls up next to the platform. Wegeman and two of his goons get out. The Great Man ascends the platform stairs. He shakes hands all around, then saunters over to the mayor, who shrinks a bit in Wegeman’s presence.

Wegeman takes over the mayor’s microphone. "I think we’ve heard enough crap," he says, and the crowd hoots in agreement. "Let’s get this fucking show on the road. I’m freezing my nuts off."

The mayor wrinkles his puffy eyes and manages a smile. Of course, heh, heh, he and Weege are always putting each other on this way. He shakes a playful finger at the Great Man. "I’ll get you for this, Ron."

"Fuck you."

Agnes steels herself. She almost enjoys it when Wegeman makes the mayor eat shit. She reminds herself that boorishness in the public arena can be attractive simply because it seems a genuine human response and not the creation of some press agent. But flatulence is just as genuine, and Agnes wouldn’t like it if Wegeman farted into the p.a. system.

Agnes has one hand in her bag. She fondles Gandalf. Wegeman’s goons don’t pay any attention to her.

Wegeman holds up a model of the new building. He puts it to his crotch. "Yes, we did use my dick as the model for this," he says.

The laughter is deafening.

He is a truly ugly man, thinks Agnes, uglier even than the buildings he erects. He is pathologically dirty-mouthed; he says fuck in a way that wrenches from it every guttural, hocking nuance.

The image of Wegeman and his breathtaking wife Madelaine arriving at some charity function or another appears on the evening news as inevitably as the weather map. With her French twist and high, noble forehead, Madelaine is one classy woman. Her husband is a man of the streets. He is physically repulsive. He has a moon face and splayed nose and jack o’lantern teeth. He wears his hair in an oily pompadour. A spit curl bobs against his forehead like a worm on a hook.

"Let’s get in out of the cold and do some serious drinking," says Wegeman. Agnes grips the gun in her bag. She waits for her moment. Wegeman turns away. He runs his hand through his greasy hair.

Shots ring out.

His bodyguards are down. Wegeman has been shot in the leg. The gun fires again. A shot hits him in the chest, driving him against the rostrum.

Agnes can’t believe it. The gunman is standing not ten feet from her. He is a lithe man of about 50. He wears a peacoat and an earring and severe rimless glasses. His gray hair is cut in a flattop.

Only in New York, thinks Agnes bitterly. If you’re not first in this town you’re last.

The man takes aim at the helpless Wegeman. He gets ready to fire the third shot, the one that will surely kill.

Wegeman, bleeding from the chest, gives his assailant the finger.

Taken aback, the gunman lowers his weapon for an instant, and Agnes acts instinctively to stop the carnage. She grabs the man from behind and immobilizes him with a blow to the solar plexus–a vicious version of the Heimlich Maneuver that she picked up in her Tae Kwon Do class. She flips him over her shoulder. He lands hard, but the pistol stays in his hand. The barrel is pointed right at Agnes. She freezes. The man looks at her. He sits up, puts the gun to his temple and fires, covering the approaching cops with blood and fluid and brain tissue.

Cops and reporters and security people are everywhere. Wegeman points at Agnes and swoons. The cops grab Agnes’s arms and hustle her away. She clutches her bag to her chest. The police shove her into the back of a squad car and get in themselves. Wedged between police officers, Agnes is shaking violently. The cop on her left slides his hat to the back of his head and sneers at her.

"Why’d you do that, lady?" he asks her. "That cocksucker evicted my mother."
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