The Dying Princess – Kyle Hemmings
February 10, 2018
The dying princess and I inhale Manhattan through the half-open, dirt streaked windows of a taxi. The sun is late afternoon. The sun is hide and seek with no friends. If the sun is mother, and if I do manage to catch her, she will be as pale as the baby planet she turned her back on–the dying princess. The driver, whose face we never see in wholes, plays stop and go at each block, zigzags around indecisive drivers or ones simply too slow for green lights. I fear he might incur a compressed form of road rage. We cruise down MacDougal Street. “I read once that this was the area of a great folk revival. Is that right, Mr. Lemmox? Or just another piece of fairy tale they got wrong?” “Yes. Yes, it was.” The driver makes a circle. We’re back on Bleecker. A flash of first impressions hits me: scents of pizza and hot garlic bread, the sound of human chatter spilling out of bars at happy hour, the amnesia of drifting downtown, the willingness to be magnetized by what you could never be. “Look,” says the dying princess, tapping a finger against glass. “It looks interesting. Over there. I mean, what must be inside all that dark glass. What goes on?” I don’t explain that it’s a gay bar, cowboy themed. I don’t tell her that it’s been closed several times for fights, and at least one stabbing. Instead, I allow her curiosity to fade. By now, “over there” is back there, forgotten and replaced.
how many poets
can fit in the hollow
my ruined acoustic guitar
There is a tiny princess whose kingdom is the size of a Grade A egg. The princess is becoming bored and sickly. No part of her kingdom offers a better view of anywhere else. She develops allergies to shellfish from children’s picture books and lukewarm milk from a lazy nanny. The queen orders the end of all rivers and cows and anything that resembles them. Then the princess develops a phobia to tiny dogs because in her dreams, they bark at her. Animal shadows in the egg-sized kingdom are now frowned upon. The queen imposes an edict on all questions pertaining to the princess’s health. The subjects, who spend most of their weekends walking in circles, are growing restless and unruly. One day, the kingdom begins to crack. It’s a long squiggly line and soon the subjects leak out. The queen utters the much quoted line, “It doesn’t matter to me. Go seek your fortunes somewhere else.” But outside the egg, the expatriates discover that no place is any better than in-egg. So to vent their anger and frustration, they smash everyone else’s egg. Everything leaks. Past and present merge into one yellow sticky river. Anyone attempting to swim in it will bathe in vitamins A and D and other nutrients, but ultimately the river will solidify and the swimmers, weak from Salmonella, will die face down.
The dying princess is dressed as anyone else. She could pass for a 20-ish Hayley Mills with sea blue eyes that insidiously suck you in and leave you feeling unlucky, almost ugly. Her hair is loose curls that meticulously just miss her shoulders. Her voice is musical, always aspiring to be higher, and her pronunciations are perfectly tilted. There is a trace of Disney about her, the charm of his 60s heroines stuck on islands and falling in love with convicts. By the end of the movie, everyone has won back his or her innocence. Few people have seen the princess’s entire face. In newspaper photos, she always wears these ridiculously large sun glasses. Perhaps she has started a fashion trend or has revived an old one. The driver turns down Bowery. She’s mesmerized by the sight of couples in black leather or wearing orange spiked hair and tie-dye shirts. So many different shades of people scuffling from a nearly defined past to an imagined future perfect. The princess gawks at a scattered line of homeless men, some too sleepy to appreciate the change thrown in their large paper cups. “We really should stop. I should give them a few coins. Am I sounding like Marie Antoinette, Mr. Lemmox?” I stretch my neck, then rub the circulation back into my legs. “Hardly,” I say in a tired voice. “She only offered cake.” The princess smirks, mumbles something I can’t make out. We head towards Chinatown, a block of old women trudging with shopping bags and their grandchildren. “How long do you think I’ll live, Mr. Lemmox? I mean, knowing what I have. Three months or seven years?” She smiles and raises her shoulders in a jaunty sort of way. I feel I’m on a college game show where my answers will invoke stifled laughter from the host. “I think you’ll live seven eternities. It’s just a hunch.” “Really? Oh, I don’t think so. Not the way I’ve been coughing up blood in the middle of the night. Or the way my body almost disappears then is brought back from the edge by mysterious specialists with such clean hands. The wonders of chemicals and men with crystal balls. On some days, when it’s all too much, I feel like taking a hammer and smashing everything. Neutrons and particles. All that will be left of me, Mr. Lemmox…” “You said something, sir?” asks the driver turning his bald head with freakishly long sideburns to the side. “No.” “You wish to stop somewhere?” “No.” The princess looks straight ahead. Her face looks regal, refined. Almost rarefied. “Perhaps next time, I will go to somewhere more exotic than New York City. Maybe Tibet or the Andes. Maybe visit the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Maybe I will try skydiving.” “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that last one.” “Why, Mr. Lemmox? Afraid of clouds?” “No. Afraid of falling.”
She turns to me and smirks. “Oh, I’m afraid I’ve already been there. I’m well acquainted with gravity.”
of the barmaid
a black cat named Heathcliff
I draw closer to the princess. She is standing near the ledge of the 52nd floor of a midtown skyscraper. My footsteps are light, measured, painfully slow. The princess turns around and says “Don’t try to save me or convince me of the worthy nature of everything. I’m sorry I tricked you into believing in me. I’m sorry I’ve failed mother and her puppet of a husband. Nothing but a Sunday crossword puzzle, nothing but a twelve letter word for no-sex-on-Sunday. His long winded speeches from shaky balconies built from mother’s throwaway monologues. Perhaps I’m a fake as well. But comes a time when one must decide and weigh one choice against the other.” “I’m not trying to stop you,” I say. “I want to jump with you.” The princess parts her lips and her eyes grow intense and small. “Why? Why, Mr. Lemmox? Are you trying to fool me into being rescued? I don’t believe you really want to jump. You must have something worth saving.” She tilts her head. Her mocking condescending look. “Anything I once had, I lost. I have nothing.” Her lips spread into a deliciously wicked grin. “I’m afraid we’ll both fail mother’s expectations.” A few inches from her I offer my hand. In slow melodramatic motion, she takes it. We are both standing on the ledge. “Should I keep my eyes open or shut?” I say. “Whichever you prefer,” she says in a stuffy, formal tone of voice. I prefer to keep them closed. “Just think of it this way, Mr. Lemmox. It’s just like skydiving. Only difference is that you reach the ground faster this way. Anyway, I hate tradition.” She counts to three. We jump. We jump. The wind will either blow through me or hold me up for at least awhile. I am a pocket of air. Nothing more. I open my eyes. We are not there.
closing your eyes
holding on to yellow spots
The dying princess tells the cab driver to pull over. She’s knocking on the window and wants to have a drink in a trendy bar named Sol Sequester. On the sidewalk, toy poodles, teacup poodles, and standard poodles groomed to be celebrities trot to a strict orderly cadence. I grab the princess’s brittle little wrists and tell her that drinking is forbidden in her condition. Plus, her mother, queen of a monarchy of exiles and tax evaders, would berate me to no end, perhaps forbid me to ever enter her country again.
Princess turns to me with that impish face, pouting lips of a freckled rogue schoolgirl. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m incognito. Dressed as everyone else, Mr. Lemmox.”
Right. She’s out the door and running inside Sol Sequester. There’s even a skip to her tempo. And with her tee-shirt splashed with Ed Sheeran’s face and her neatly creased jeans, she might fit in with the locals. We sit in a dark corner of the bar/restaurant. Over the loudspeakers, an old tune by America–“Riverside.” I think.
The princess sips her plum brandy from a snifter and her eyes wander over everyone. I imagine she wants to be someone else for a few hours and then discard the identity. “If your mother found out that we were here…I mean the possibility of you being recognized by some off duty razzi and in a place that wasn’t on the planned tour…We have to stick to an agenda.” She holds a hand out, palm facing me.
“Look, Mr. Lemmox, I know mother paid you to do a job and that is to escort and watch me. But consider this my last wish or one of them. You know, back home, I’m surrounded by so many people who block my view but so little friends. I simply want to enjoy this small glass of plum brandy and watch all these happy happy people who don’t live like me or won’t die like me or who can see what I can’t. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, is it?”
I make a show of glancing at my watch. “We’re due uptown in approximately an hour. Mrs. Van der Veer is anxious to see you.” The princess taps her hand to the beat of another song. Some 90s techno. “As if I didn’t know,” she says.
I sit back and fold my arms. I paid the taxi driver to keep a running meter.
The princess’s cheeks are slightly flushed. Her voice a wee bit higher.
“Mr. Lemmox, I want you to do me one more favor. I want you to leave the bar and take a walk around the block. Then return. I just want to sit here alone in this dark corner to see what it feels like. To have this power to be alone and for a few moments, to be happy. I want to watch, and smile at everybody, and I don’t care if they know or don’t know who I am. I am not self-destructing, Mr. Lemmox.”
I take a deep breath. A waitress comes over and I order just water.
“I can’t do that, Your Highness.”
“Call me Gertie. It was given to me at birth.” She takes another sip. Raises her chin, closes her eyes, perhaps savoring the brandy with the back of her tongue. “Your Highness, your mother gave me orders. I am to guide you through the city, watch you. I am responsible for you. I can’t leave you.”
She takes out a cell phone from a pants pocket. “Now, what if I were to call the Royal Palace and tell mummy that you’re making inappropriate passes at me? Might dirty your reputation, Mr. Lemmox. Might prevent you from obtaining future private duty work.”
I stare at her and tilt my head. I won’t let her intimidate me.
“Is that Dylan they’re playing?” she says with a bemused smile. “I am so not familiar with his early stuff. Or any of it, actually.”
My glass of water arrives. The waitress asks if we’d like to order anything else. Princess demands another plum brandy. She swallows the last dregs and smacks her lips. In an eloquent sort of way. She forms her hands together in prayer.
“Please Mr. Lemmox. It’s the last thing I will ask you for on this tour. Just walk around the block and let me sit here so I can breathe and ogle all these beautiful people. How long would it take to walk around the block? A whole five minutes? Four and a half?”
Her lower lip trembles and she starts to break down. “It isn’t a whole lot to ask, you know.” I’m afraid that if she becomes loud it will cause attention. I rise, pat her wrist, and tell her, five minutes, no more. She wipes her tears, fake or not, and shakes her head to mean yes.
Outside, I tell the driver to watch who comes out of Sol Sequester. If the princess exits, he must call me immediately on my cell. I give him my number. I’m worried that the princess will start chatting with some local bad boys, reveal something she shouldn’t or more likely, she will become rude and indignant. There will be a scene. But after all, she is dying. I traipse around the block, looking in store windows, checking out women’s legs, their fine curves and turns. It’s starting to get chilly, windy. It’s going to rain or drizzle. I walk faster. I should have brought a sweater. And an umbrella. Perhaps I am coming down with something. My chest has a slight burn whenever I walk too fast. As I shuffle down the street, it occurs to me that nobody knows me or how I reached this point in my life. Would they care? The slight burn is still there but I’m feeling light and thin. As if I could be anybody. Or as the princess claims, on windy days when she shops incognito, she feels she can float and no one would notice. Maybe I take too much blood thinners. Or in too large amounts. My doctor doesn’t care. My wife and daughter died years ago in a hit and run. Now, both the driver and his victims are missing. It was as if a sudden chance of wind took my family and one unknown. The wind blows through me. Minutes become years. I’m getting thinner, more forgetful of where I place things, people. I suppose by the time I reach the bar, the princess will feel tipsy. She’ll rise, stumble, and throw her arms around me. She’ll say Why are you so short of breath? Been racing? Were you that worried? For a moment, I’ll pretend she’s my daughter. I’ll pretend she was kidnapped by royalty, but she really wants to be my college-age kid. After all, there are two worlds, two universes: the real one, the one we imagine. The one we touch and the one we can’t for fear of destroying it. In one the odds are less than 25% that anything will go right. On a good day, maybe 30%. In the parallel one we invent, everything will turn out fine. I reach the block where Sol Sequester is on. I’m about to enter it. Now, in the real world, the princess might be still sitting there, stone-face, plastered, about to act bitchy toward me. She’ll say “Where have you been? What took you do damn long? Do you know how many people were trying to hit on me?” Or she might not be there at all. But in the best of all possible worlds–she and I will be here forever.
after the dead die
they keep returning