The Gap in His Heart by Joachim Frank
On the spur of the moment, Scott decided to take a leave of absence from his job, to see Goya’s giant tapestry cartoons, among the jewels of the Prado Museum in Madrid. Since his mother’s funeral, two months before, he’d been finding it difficult to sit at his cluttered desk. There was a plant in his office that reminded him of her, perhaps because of its quiet, unassuming presence, or perhaps because of the shape of its leaves, which resembled one of her aprons. Sitting at his desk, he felt the new emptiness.
His mother’s long illness had used up his vacation time and personal leave. Leave without pay was the only course. Harry, Scott’s boss, was of the understanding kind.
“Boy, you sure look pale,” he said, not exactly a picture of health himself, sticking his head into Scott’s office, holding the door between his flat hands. “Give yourself a break.” But he made it clear to Harry that he wanted him back in a week for an important inventory that couldn’t wait.
Wisely, Scott had avoided mentioning Goya and talked vaguely about the Caribbean Islands instead. It was the type of vacation his boss would more easily understand. To Scott, Goya stood for the bliss of an afternoon, more than twenty years before, when he’d discovered, standing with his young wife in front of the Flower Girls, that his own yearning for permanence was an ageless pursuit, and that Goya’s brush had spelled out as much as could be spelled out by a human soul. He’d learned that the word Prado stood for the meadow, the pastoral site where the museum had been erected, and a meadow it had become in his memory, a place of peace increasingly important to him as the years went by. They had been there just once, on their honeymoon. Then, five years later, the accident, which had become a stark untouchable place in his memory.
“There’s one thing, Harry.”
“One thing what?”
“Could you water the plant?”
“Sure thing. Take it easy!”
Quite a boss, this Harry!
His suitcase packed, waiting for the taxi, Scott called Cindy, his sister living in the Midwest. Until the day of the funeral he’d not seen her for years, though he’d spoken to her a few times on the phone during their mother’s illness. For one reason or another, his sister couldn’t ‘get round’ to fly in and visit their mother in hospital. Once she’d cancelled her reservation and returned the tickets, because one of her kids had come down with the flu. Another time a blizzard struck, trapping her for three days. Perhaps the reason for these mishaps was her divorce: she was simply not used to taking charge of her own life.
When his sister finally arrived, their mother’s body lay in a polished hardwood coffin, supplied by Resquiescat, Inc., a reputable local firm. Cindy had her kids in tow. She looked aged, a shadow of the girl he’d grown up with. But Scott’s attention was somewhere else. What he had only known from birth announcements years ago materialised in the form of two beautiful girls, Rebecca and Jennifer, who spent the days in a corner of his living room, playing Monopoly, unaffected by the mourners’ commotion and apparently happy to keep out of their mother’s hissing range.
He’d found himself instantly drawn to eleven-year old Rebecca. Jennifer was eight, less formed. Rebecca was the girl he imagined he might have fathered if his life had taken a different turn: brown-eyed, pony-tailed, with a pensive expression and swift, determined movements. She looked a bit like a picture of his mother as a girl, standing in front of a carousel. He detected hints of coming style and elegance – the way she tossed her hair back when it fell over her small shoulder onto the Roosevelt Hotel (priced $4,000 in blue-tinted play money).
“Cindy, this is Scott,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to call you. Just wanted to thank you for your help. It’s been hard, you know.”
“Any time,” she replied, as though there were additional mothers to worry about.
“Actually, I’m about to leave for Spain, for a week,” he said.
“Paella. Flamenco. Castanets,” she said, sounding absent-minded. “That sounds like fun.”
There were seconds of an uncomfortable silence.
“Nice daughters you got,” he finally said. It was a break with tradition in their family, of not showing emotions, of not giving compliments, and he regretted it at once. She had always loved to see him weak.
“Look, that’s nice of you to say, but I’ve got to run. What’s this about? Did I leave something at your house?”
“On the contrary, I wanted to bring something back for them,” he said meekly. “Is that alright with you?”
The silence that ensued was different now; it was a positive speechlessness he could discern at the other end.
“Bring?” she asked.
“Just a little something. From Madrid, you know.”
“Why would you want to do that?” she asked, her voice a pitch higher.
“I’d enjoy that. I was thinking, seeing them in the corner there . . . the innocence . . . I thought, if their dad were still around, they would get surprises like that, once in a while . . .”
Outside the taxi honked.
“I gotta rush, Cindy. I’ll talk to you when I’m back.” And something in the interrupted conversation left him feeling so foolish that he apologised to the taxi driver for being late.
* * *
Madrid greeted Scott with an atypical cold, drizzling rain. He found himself unequipped for the cold weather, with T-shirts and short pants, flimsy things that left much of his skin exposed, which was starting to turn blue. The driver of the taxicab he took from the airport gave him a look as if he were from a different planet. The fact that he wore a yellow backpack did not help. Once settled in his hotel – a four-story sliver of a townhouse, turn-of-the century, with cracked marble floors and an asthmatic cage elevator – he took the subway to the biggest Corte Inglais and tried to buy a cheap pair of pants and two sweaters, enough to get him through the cold week. Two hours later he left the majestic Babel of spending, dispirited, with two bulging mauve-coloured bags, blurry vision, and the terrible feeling that he’d been had.
That night, listening to the singing, rushing sounds of the never-sleeping city outside, and sensing the height of the ceiling above, he thought about the meandering path of his life. He saw himself as a particle in a trajectory, one that went as a dotted line connecting the hotel room and the bed where he lay breathing with the second floor of his house in Saratoga Springs. And then he reminded himself that a mere twenty humming city blocks away, bright-eyed girls, captured in the paintings of the master he’d come to visit, performed the Eternal Dance of the Seasons.
Scott awoke in the early morning hour, the clock of his body askew, to a sleeping building with coffee still unbrewed. The three hours till dawn proved enough time to go five times through the Prado guide he’d bought at the airport. He decided to plan the four days ahead. Monday he reserved for the Spanish painters because he didn’t think he could wait for Goya. Tuesday was going to be the Italians, because of their proximity to the Spanish both on the map and in the maze of the museum. Flemish masters were next, on Wednesday, and then he would finish off his visit with the Dutch.
Arrived at the Velazquez door, without delay, he went through the labyrinth of chambers and antechambers, to the room that harboured Goya’s tapestry cartoons featuring the Four Seasons. The Wine Harvest was his favourite scene. There again he saw the light streaming from the basket, overflowing with grapes, that rested in improbable balance on a maiden’s head. A distant castle – a mere thought of the brush! Ah, and the way the hands and arms of the peasants linked up to form the spokes of a wheel! He stood in front of the canvas in awe, wishing that just once he could enter the lightness of that past world.
The week went by like a single day. Invariably his dreams transported him back to the Prado. In one he was sitting on one of the hard back-to-back benches of the museum, watching Jacob asleep in the painting of Jose de Ribera, sleeping on as he watched him. In another he followed a nightingale through a Baroque garden and found himself in a Fourteenth Century nativity scene by Anonymous. It was as though he never left the building once. Yet one night, the night between the Flemish and the Dutch, was peculiar. He found himself trapped in the forest of Botticelli’s triptych, condemned to witness the eternal hunt of the virgin-lover.
“I don’t belong here,” he stammered to the lightly clad apple-breasted maiden as she rushed by him. She was being pursued by fast, disproportioned medieval dogs.
“What makes you think I do?” she panted, turning her head back toward him. The strained angelic smile on her face went through him like an electric arc. It cut him in half, from head to groin, and ice crept into his body across the dividing plane. As he saw himself being transformed into a statue, the first dog caught up with the woman and attached itself firmly to her slender ankle, drawing carmine blood. He awoke to the echo of a scream that came back from the ceiling. The blanket had slipped off; his groping hands, cold and stiff, found it in a pile next to the bed.
There were the muffled sounds of voices next door. His first thought was that the forest stretched much farther, encompassing the entire hotel. Then, after his heart had finished pounding him into place, and the voices had subsided, anxiety took over. He lay awake, thinking about the plane ride back, the day after tomorrow, and what it would be like, being back in Saratoga Springs. He thought about the plant in his office, about the absence of leaves that might face him, about the gap in his heart. He wanted to hold on to something; something that was more permanent, more faithful to detail than his memory. His mother had been weak and frail for months. She had started to call him baby again. He had sat at her bed trying to say something, trying to listen to her half-finished sentences.
That day, in an abrupt change of his plan, he went to the Plaza Major. Forget the Dutch, he thought, they’re close to the Flemish anyway. After an hour of strolling through the little tourist boutiques he’d become an expert on fans. The large ones were ostentatious and unwieldy: meant to be worn to the opera, they conveyed a sense of lasciviousness with their black lace and sensuous decoration. The small ones were cheap imitations of the large, too obviously intended for little girls. But he was looking for something in-between, for the kind of fan a teenage girl might want to swish on an imagined promenade, in a small city in the Midwest, to fend off, lady-like, the sultry heat of July. Running in and out of shops that were not much larger than closets, he laid eyes on hundreds of exquisite designs. There were cardinal-red paradise birds, ready to take off from the transparent beige parchment, purple orchids that glowed on satin black, ferns about to uncurl their blind embryonic fiddle-heads, against a background of a glistening silvery waterfall. Each was a world in itself, yet each had one glaring imperfection: one was too seductive, the next too expensive, the one after that too grownup, and so on: too pretentious, too plastic, too cheap.
When he was almost back where he started, following the colonnades along the circumference of the ancient cobble-stoned plaza, a small dingy corner store attracted his attention. In its window display there was the usual parade of ten-inch tall flamenco dancers, their arms raised, propped up on the shelves by looped wires, but no trace of a fan. Instead, there stood a peacock entirely made of silk, watching Scott intently from the side with its yellow glass eye. He was fooled for a moment, expecting its head to jerk into the next position. Stepping into the half-dimness of the little store, Scott saw the owner, a bald, heavyset man with bushy eyebrows who was about to take a sip from an espresso cup.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked in surprisingly fluid English, almost accent-free. And Scott, his heart opened by the familiar inflections and the scent of espresso, his feet tired, sat down on a stool in the corner and told him about his predicament.
The man listened without changing his stoic expression, his hand, which was holding the little cup, still arrested at the point where it had been the moment Scott entered the store. Eventually he proceeded to take the long-awaited sip, then put the cup gently onto the glass counter, and opened a drawer below with a grinding sound. Out of it he pulled a black lace-trimmed ivory-spined fan that bore a large circular spot, in a perfect imitation of the peacock design. The colours were iridescent, running from a deep almost black purple into a majestic violet blending into aquamarine that found little rest before turning into a peculiar green.
“What kind of colour is that?” Scott asked.
“That’s Butchers’ Green,” the shop-owner replied. “The colour butchers see after a day’s work when they close their eyes.”
Scott swallowed and took a closer look. The pattern was drawn as a filigree of overlapping feathers, make-believe, with a microscopic brush, reminiscent of an illuminated Medieval manuscript. He’d never seen such delicate design before in his life.
“This,” the owner said, “was done by an artist from Andalusia, a good friend of mine. You will not find the likes of it in the whole of Spain.”
Scott got up from his stool, took the fan in his hand and stretched out his arm, to look at it from a distance. As a speck of sun fell on it, through the window, the room lit up, the pattern came to life. He had not known that such perfection existed.
“What do you want for it?” he asked, with a voice raspy from excitement.
“Give me 2,000 pesetas,” the owner said, shrugging his shoulders, as though to emphasise the arbitrariness of this figure. Scott opened his mouth in disbelief. It was a pitiful sum, even compared to the price of the plastic flamenco dancers leaning against their flimsy wire loops.
“I shouldn’t complain,” he said, carefully placing the treasure back onto the glass, “but this must be worth a lot more.”
“To be honest with you, it’s priceless. It’s never been for sale. But it has been in that drawer for a long time. I’m an old man. This piece belongs in the hand of a beautiful woman. There’s nothing in that department in my family. No granddaughters either. That girl – what was her name?”
“Rebecca,” Scott said.
“Rebecca, right. When you told me about her, I saw sparks in your eyes. She must be an unusual lady even at her young age. Right then I made the right decision: that fan was made for her. Don’t try to talk me out of it.”
With bouncing steps, after thanking his benefactor profusely, Scott made his way back to the metro station, carrying the fan neatly wrapped in a gift box in his backpack. He smiled at passersby, brightening their weary faces. In less than twenty-four hours he would be back in the States. He saw the moment when Rebecca would hold the box in her hand and unwrap it in curious anticipation, at an age still ready to accept miracles. The metro car, on the line that brought him back to his hotel, was jammed with people returning from work. Thinking of his undeserved luck, he didn’t mind being pushed. Behind him, a tall man with a ponytail and a ring in his nose mumbled something in Spanish that sounded like an apology.
Back at the hotel, he couldn’t wait to look at his treasure again. When he took his backpack off, it felt strangely flabby to the touch. Its zipper was open. With an anxious, hasty move, he went in with his hand. The backpack was empty except for the city map and the crumpled-up hand-written receipt that bore the forceful signature of the shop owner. Scott sat down on his bed, holding the piece of paper, which was the only remaining trace of the transaction. Staring at it, he found himself trying to recall the colour and pattern of the gift-wrap. Strange, he had attached no importance to these matters before. Green, of all colours? And rows of spades? Some kind of medieval arms? As he sensed the emptiness, as he felt his shoulder starting to shake, he heard a subdued whimper, then a cry that turned into a howl filling the darkening room – it took Scott seconds till he recognised the voice as his own.
He awoke disoriented in total darkness, trying to understand the meaning of the red digits next to his bed with a colon in between. His pillow felt damp from his sweat. Outside, a fire truck wailed in the distance. The last digit changed; yes, that was it, again a minute had passed. In his heart, he was surprised to discover a new calmness. He suddenly knew what to do. Sitting up on his bed, he groped for the switch of the lamp. In the bright light he looked at his hands next to the phone – they were steady and firm.
“Operator,” he said. “Give me Iberia Airlines.” He found a flight that would leave a full week later.
* * *
On the first day of his newfound time Scott went to an internet café and sent a message to Harry about his sudden illness, reminding him in a post-scriptum about watering the plants. He went to the police and drew a sketch of the tall pony-tailed nose-ringed man. The next day he went back to the Prado, to see the Dutch. In the evening he walked back to Plaza Major and talked the shop owner into taking a tapas tour. The man was visibly touched by the invitation; just before closing up his shop, he waved Scott back inside. Looking at him apologetically, he opened the same drawer and took out a fan that was indistinguishable from the one he’d sold him before. There was the giant eye, there was the microscopic brush-stroke, there was the same Butcher’s Green. Scott’s heart filled with wonder, then with scorn.
“How many of those have you got?” he asked.
“It’s the same one,” the shopkeeper said, with a sheepish smile. “This time I give it to you for free.”
Scott was overjoyed, though a bit confused. The man closed his shop, locked the door and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “OK, let’s go for some tapas,” he said.
It was a memorable night. After the third tapas bar, all the while anxiously watching his backpack, Scott dared to ask how the scheme worked.
“Scheme? You call it a scheme? It’s my nephew trying to make a living. He’s a good kid, at his core.”
Scott agreed that he was good at what he was doing. Then he told the old man about those drawings he’d made for the police.
“Not to worry,” the man said. “Nobody’s going to recognise him. The ponytail is fake, and he wears the nose ring just for work.”
Scott paid the bill, put his backpack on, and wordlessly shook the man’s hand. He managed to produce a smile and left the bar in a hurry. Outside, he took a deep breath and shook his head before making his way back to the hotel, as he watched out for men with fake hair, with loops attached to their faces, with designs on his lucky loot before it would reach little Rebecca. This world, outside the Prado, was enormously complicated. He thought he might have done better centuries back, during the times of chivalry, or the Renaissance. But he also felt the giddiness of a new beginning. The feathery weight in his backpack could not be denied. The swirl of events had made him feel alive again.
It was his mother, he realised, who had sent him this way.
JOACHIM FRANK is a German-born scientist and writer, since 1975 in Albany, New York. He took writing classes with William Kennedy, Steven Millhauser, Eugene Garber, and Jayne Ann Philipps. In 2008 he moved to New York City where he is professor at Columbia University. Some of his poems have appeared in the online journals Offcourse, The New Poet and Raving Dove. Several pieces of fiction (short stories and flash fiction) have appeared in elimae, 3711 Atlantic, Cezanne’s Carrot, Brilliant, Ghoti Magazine, Eclectica, The Noneuclidean Cafe, Offcourse, Hamilton Stone Review, Bartleby’s Snopes, The Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guide, StepAway Magazine, theeel, Short Fast and Deadly, Rivet Journal, *82 Review, Litbomb, Textobj, Rivet Journal and Conium Review. He wrote three novels, still unpublished. Three portfolios of his photographs can be found at Pedro Meyer’s international photogallery zonezero.com. Some of his published pieces, along with blogs, can be found on his website franxfiction.com. Frank is one of the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.