Excerpt from Linda Danz's collection of short stories: Breath Visible, published by Bookbaby, December 2017
Alice Darling was also a serious painter.
There’d been a time, right after her divorce at twenty-seven, when she had lived life as freely as any artist could wish for. She’d left the Upper East Side, and a husband, for her first love. She returned to painting in a rent-controlled apartment in a tenement building near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. She’d made the transition with the help of her lover, a Hungarian sculptor who also lived and worked in that building. On-the-job training was easier then—before computers—and she took to graphic design with ease. Freelance jobs were plentiful enough to turn down when she’d had enough. For a few weeks, or even months at a stretch, she painted full time, enjoyed socializing with her friends and a downtown nightlife that was essential to her creativity. Soon enough, she grew leery of the freelance tightrope that, more often than not, fell slack when she really needed to balance her checkbook. Alice signed on for a permanent freelance position at Hatchet and secured the golden handcuffs to her wrists. Eight years later they were beginning to chafe.
Her neglected personal life would restart its crucial—if impermanent—recovery at the end of a workday, as soon as the elevator carried her from the twenty-first floor to the soul-shrinking chill of a vast travertine-walled lobby. She waved goodnight to an amiable security guard, hustled past the spaceship that hovered above a theme restaurant in the sunken outdoor plaza, and then bounded up the short flight of stairs to Broadway. Across the avenue, the Winter Garden’s brightly lit marquee lifted a little bit of the day’s accumulated weight from her shoulders.
Back in her apartment on the top floor of the five-story walk-up, she inhaled the blissful, restorative tonic of oil paint and turpentine as she wolfed take-out Szechuan, washed down with red wine. Nourished, she brandished a paintbrush and attacked the canvas. If her neighbor was about—Hungarian sculptor, drug dealer, cat feeder and stand-by lover, George Balint—they would snort a line or two and share their grievances and, if she was in the mood, her bed.
It was time to face the music. Alice took one last drag on her cigarette before flipping the butt into the gutter. She steeled herself for lunch at a table covered in thick white linen, set with gilt-edged china and flyweight crystal. The menu was French, the society of the place divinely encapsulated in a short story by one of Alice’s favorite authors. She would stay tuned, listen for conversation “catty and thinly-veiled.”
Glancing past the maître d’, Alice saw a few elderly patrons, smartly attired and seated at banquettes along the wall. The room was nearly empty. It had been some time since Mr. Capote was strategically placed on a banquette under the famous murals, perched on his haunches and beginning to gnaw at the hand that paid for the Cristal. Zagat’s bemoaned the restaurant’s loss of followers. And it was August.
Alice was ushered to her seat, drawn by a white-hot glare from Donna, already positioned at a round table in the middle of the room.
“Nice of you to join us,” Donna said.
A silver-haired waiter appeared, honed by propriety. Rosalie flapped her hands and shyly declined a drink. Donna ordered her usual I-am-really-a-fun-gal-outside-the-office cocktail.
“Johnny Walker. Noir, s’il vous plait.” The waiter expertly feigned both approval and disdain. Alice looked away, embarrassed. Donna had to have been up all night practicing that, Alice thought.
“I’ll have the same,” Olive said. That was expected. Both she and Donna had been nastily divorced in middle age, replaced by younger women. When her cat died, Donna vowed never to have another living thing in her personal life. Olive had a daughter. Apart from that, they resembled each other. Similarly styled, they wore clothes like resentment—severe and relentlessly replayed.
Alice was the last to order and added her choice—a bourbon Manhattan—to a list that included martinis for the others and a Cosmopolitan for Peter. Rosalie, seeing she had underestimated, called the waiter back. “I’ll have a Johnny Walker too!”
Donna crowed with queenly attitude. “Oh, I feel like Dorothy Parker.”
Parker, my ass, thought Alice. “Wrong table, Donna.”
Donna smiled tightly. She splayed freshly manicured fingernails and summoned her inner Ice Queen, “What’s that, Alice?”
“Wrong table,” Alice laughingly repeated. “Wrong restaurant.”
Alice filled in the silence at the table caused by her overstepping by further overstepping. She recited in a breathy whine, “I can see every monster as they come in.”