Salome’s Ghost – Adam Johnson
September 8, 2023
He stood, smoking a cigarette, leaning his back against the white-washed stucco that formed the western exterior of a café on Surf Avenue. The café’s emerald façade, embellished by an undulant bone white trellis, afforded him shade from the obscenity of a blistering sun. It was an oven-like July day in 1924. The masses of poor immigrants from Brooklyn and other boroughs had flocked by the nickel fare to enjoy the lustre of the sand, the scent and splendor of the sea air, the glitz and glimmer of the shops and rides – those nonpareil outlets and gridirons of Coney Island that boasted everything from a two-penny comb to the Earthquake Floor. He stood there, as was the wont of a man of his generation, stoic, florid, yet vibrant in his way. There was something electrifying even in the stillness of his bearing, the seeming potency of his gait as he circuited the boardwalk from his Chrysler imperial custom roadster to the place we find him. He was a young man, an attractive man to be sure. He was not taller than most, but neither was he shorter. His exposed hair was black, succinct and sharp, cut short at the sides with the long top hair combed over the head, and secured in place by scented pomatum. His face was slender, yet masculine. It channeled a soft ruggedness in the fresh-shaved concave beneath a high cheekbone, the salient protrusion of an upper lip and the delicate and symmetrical subordination of a lower one, the composure and subtle radiance contained in rich brown irises that betrayed untouched-upon depth. His neck gave way to a set of generous shoulders, hidden behind a blue open-collared shirt and tan jacket. Casual trousers extended from his waist, where they terminated at a pair of two-toned sport shoes. There was a resolute virility and athleticism to the young man, a worldliness to his undecided affectation, an almost immortal masculinity as unflinching as it was elegant.
The young man stamped out the flagging ash at the end of his cigarette. A few gulls soared gently in the wind over the rolling waves. He eyed the surf and sea, impressed as were both by the influx of his fellow-city dwellers by the hundreds of thousands. And indeed he thought of them as his fellows: the middle class, the poor, even the orphans picking rich pockets in the holiday droves. Vastly rich as he was by comparison, superior in intellect and etiquette, he had neither airs nor avarice in his character. He was a true son of the human kingdom, as uncontrolled by malice or envy as is the very salt of the earth. He reflected on the visits his family had made to the island in his youth: those charming excursions away from the clamor and bustle of city life to the seaside, where they’d basked under the hot beams of the same flaming sun, and frolicked in the bellying waves of the same effulgent sea. He remembered his brother and he, sun-burnt and wrestling in the frothing waves as the sun would set and the tall lights on Luna Park would come alive in the golden age of the peninsula. He remembered the human roulette wheel in the pavilion of fun, watching the ocean pier trolley from atop his father’s shoulders, playing at toss penny with kid-strangers, the tippy boats, the golden stairs, castles in the sand, and the wooden donkey that had killed a man. Coney Island was a different place then. Different from the nickel empire it was now; a time when all of New York, prince or pauper, could enjoy the sandy beaches, no longer closed to them by the barbed wire pounded deep in the breakers. Contemplating such memories, the young man sensed an impressing closeness in time to his childhood, the sights and sounds prompting him to reverie, an awareness intangible yet real, elusive yet certain.
He was alone that day. There was no reason, as he saw it, that people must seek their respite in pairs. Humans are perfectly capable of forsaking company, and he found it necessary on occasion to drive his motorcar into the country or to the sea. He was not a recluse, but enjoyed his thoughts alone at times. It wasn’t necessary that he share every one of them. He could enjoy the anonymity of a crowd, whereas other would feel lost, insignificant. He was a happy, carefree, yet strictly contemplative man, kind unto strangers, and charitable, rich beyond daydreams, intellectually gifted, and possessed of a first- rate face and build. Yet his most salient feature, physical or otherwise, was his lasting innocence. He would have been the envy of his generation had he the misfortune of celebrity.
The young man set out from beneath the calico marquee of the café. He strolled along the boardwalk, his black exposed hair absorbing the beating heat of the afternoon sun, his shoes trotting unmindfully along the one-year-old wooden planks. A few children darted passed him, hollering in their way, some of them clutching sugar-sticks and little gimcracks from the novelty shops. The young man stopped at a place of refreshment. Above the bar counter Wally’s was spelled in a dazzling array of electric bulbs, deprived of their splendor by the light of day. The man at the counter, a swarthy Polish man with a sturdy but round frame, dirtied apron with blood orange smears and redolent of citrus, and a face dried in salt and sweat and curtained by a white bandana, handed over a soda water to the young man, the while imparting to his “young friend” in a whisper where he could find a drop or two of Canadian whiskey had he the money. Our young friend did, but respectfully declined. He cared little for alcohol. The man behind the tall counter at Wally’s crossed his arms, offended at the young man’s abstention, incensed that a 20-something buck on the boardwalk would deny his self a draught of smuggled liquor, and half afraid that Prohibition agents would soon descend on his caravan. He eyed the young man as he disappeared into the theater of the crowd, that quotidian Coney Island spectacle of a million moving body parts clothed in the fashion of the epoch.
The afternoon whirled by, attended by a thousand and six merry tidings. Bathers lapped and twisted in the salty waves, peddlers pushed their goods on the sand-bound, food carts migrated to and fro across the Bowery and elsewhere, urchins of poverty pleaded for their papa’s good graces for but one round at the shooting galleries, rides went up and down, and thousands of dollars in change crossed hands over trifling entertainments, freak shows, and other tawdry distractions while the well-to-do enjoyed the perquisites of their umbrellas and cocktails in private sections of the coast, where rich dandies young and old gabbed between cigar puffs while their women buffeted the wretched smoke with cheap fans from the Orient. As the evening shadows were cast upon the great collective hoopla of the peninsula, and as a darksome horizon crawled in from the Atlantic, the waves began to clear of swimmers, and the boardwalk was overwhelmed with a motley congregation of Americans at their diversion. The lights of the empire distended to a somber, clouded sky, causing the rolling celestial sphere to flicker, while the Electric Tower impeded on heaven’s door.
Peacefully regarding the herd mentality of the throngs, the young man leaned at his leisure against the fresh paling of the boardwalk, looking in on the versicolor concourse of people and entertainments. He was across from Bailey’s Plaisance, an open air colonnade spilling over with unrestrained juveniles at ball toss while others took cracks at the midway games. A pack of scapegraces in dirtied flat caps and hollering in an Irish brogue had just smashed in the sides of a wheel cart and were being chased by an Arab man in an indigo tarboosh, waving a tong through the hot night air as he pursued the youths into the oblivion of heads and shoulders filling the avenue.
The young man abandoned his place on the platform, leaving the sounds of the soft-crashing waves. The bursts and snaps, and other little explosions of the games grew louder as the amplified acoustics of the arcade danced through the sultry air. A careworn, almost ashen man with an abbreviated black mustache thrilled the keys to an accordion at the enchanted gateway to the games, the occasional ambler tossing a penny into the can at the feet of the poor man with the squeezebox. In the forefront of the amusement, a sparkling carousel with gilt posts and shining flying horses rotated to the strains of a Wurlitzer organ. To the left, a soda jerk dispensed a multitude of sweet elixirs to the buzzing children in line at the fantastic fountain, to the right, the first rows of the Fascination tables stretched into the fair. Various echelons of lighted globes and twinkling lamps and bulbs criss-crossed the salty air, rising up to the tall slopes of the canopied dome where a few errant balloons struggled for ascendency at the apex of the tent. The young man reached down, shook the old accordion player’s hand, and gave him a dollar bill, before continuing down the boardwalk with a listless harmony in his breast.
He passed the haberdasher’s, passed the island’s Fifth Avenue boutiques, passed the variegated concessions run by people of all races and religions. He made his way through a throng encircling a man in the process of swallowing a sword in front of Aladdin’s Bazaar. Breaking through the ranks of onlookers, he hugged the wall of a salon, where he stopped to roll a cigarette. Licking the ends, he looked up across the legions of merry-makers. And that is when he saw her: the personification of Helen, a face and figure torn from a Botticelli and transplanted to the Atlantic coast before his very eyes. At the far end of the boardwalk near West 12th Street stood Venus herself, shapely, comely, hair blowing in from the sea in spectacular ancient Goddess-like brown cilia, a silk scarf trailing, her body enveloped in a luxurious white French two-piece wool sweater and skirt, stocking-less legs folded one over the other in an accidental posture as she leaned against the arm of a pale, well-kempt man in a high-waisted jacket and a pair of immense Oxford bags, the man laughing into the night sky, the queen of earth gazing unbearably at the sea.
The pair was nearing, ever closing in on his station as the distance of the boardwalk became a trifle and he was confronted with the deepest delicacy and bloom existing in heaven and earth. Behind her, the Wonder Wheel became a blur, and the lights of its dangling carriages effected a halo around her visage. The young man stood in the shadow of the salon. As she approached, the woman, who must have been his age if not slightly older, grew only the more sublime. He’d written a thousand poems and verses for her, not ever knowing when and if she existed. There she was, mere feet from him, distracted by the mean brute that bought her things, the boring man of fashion who had succored her by an extravagant day at the beach shops and parlors, who knew of “Dickens” as an expression and not as a man. As she walked by him, Fate caused her to notice the young man’s vigilant, piercing gaze, caused her to return eyes to eyes, to place a stamp on that pivotal fleeting moment in time when the intensity of the cosmos is imprisoned in the ether between strangers, a miraculous, raging fire compressed into the air of a momentary glance, forcing the total and utter passions of antiquity to the present day to perform a two-second act in passing, the very souls of the unacquainted pouring forth upon an imperceptible union, an intangible affair of heart-strings. And then she was gone. Armand dropped an unlighted cigarette to the boardwalk, slack-jawed, committing the last glimpses of her ethereal departure, the wellspring of his rapture, to the center of his consciousness. A briny breeze tickled his cheeks and neck, and caused him to shiver.
Several months passed. The sweltering, oppressive heat, that kind of torrid city fever that oppresses the New York species with acrid, clammy asphyxiation, subsided at long last. The smoldering unwitnessed anvil in the sky, emitting its infernal blazing calidity, perennially strangling the human bodies over which it dominated, was held in abeyance as the northern hemisphere was oriented away from the sun, causing the balmy winds of autumn, and the abbreviated hours of day, to descend upon the cold buildings and filthy streets, and the checkered countenances of men and women walking briskly in expectation of downy flake.
The men of New York, those faceless unyielding job-horses reclaimed daily by the city in blacks and blues and grays who have thrashed each other in a great sea of commerce since the time of the founding, sacrificing their very livelihoods and beating down their very brothers in the name of capital, were again amassed on the train platforms of a morning, wherefrom they would migrate to their sky-dwelling dens of wretched money-making. Some read newspapers, some chaffed about the markets between the heavy rattle of train service, bandying in the usual platitudes of such-and-such a future doing this, and others doing that, &c. Every man smoked. Every man dominated and was dominated by his fellow man. Every man trembled internally, suppressing the pangs of fear rooted in their collective lack of hope. In a word, every man strove to unburden themselves of that precarious Wall Street blade pressing at their necks, pleading their case against exile to some unknown, celestial mover of stocks and bonds, unaware of the ruin that would befall them in five years time, yet expecting calamity even before the crash, like sheep on a mountain trail will begin to quaver before the first rolling stones.
Amidst these legions of weary suits and briefcases, fedora hats and barristers bags stood Armand, expressionless in the unchanging populous of suits exiting the train at the 23rd Street Station, men at the break of day climbing to the streets as though from the very dwells of hell. Armand exited the subway car and entered the crowded traffic of the station. He shouldered his way to the street, like an ant escaping the cusp of a sandy hill, where he would walk to his offices in that famous Renaissance palazzo hallmark of the Flatiron District.
Armand entered one of several elevators in the grand lobby of the Flatiron Building. A woman in a low-waisted silk dress and sporting a bob beneath a cloche hat smiled at him, blushed crimson, revealed behind the bright vermilion of her lips a pearly radiance that caused young suitors to beg her for a smile, and which garnered her the nickname Elsie at such places as the Del Fay Club. She exhibited that superannuated charm of female modesty, a spark in her face but not in any one feature, a kind of unidentifiable lustre, like a soft-floating airborne perfumed tincture, cultivated by the nose, unobserved by the eyes, adored instinctively without reason why, without the need for explanation or understanding. Who was she? Certainly not one of your brash jazz club flappers.
At his floor, Armand stepped off the elevator car and walked abstractedly through the tired greetings of his employees until he reached his office, where he shut the door and stood at the window. He gazed upon the expanse of glistening buildings, the traffic in the streets below, the scattered masses of clouds in the sky that would obscure the sun, only to let its radiance shine forth once the winds of the earth attacked them with the silent violence of atmospheric gusts. Armand thought reflectively as his eyes pierced Madison Square, where only a few years before he’d witnessed the grandeur of the 165th’s procession through the Victory Arch in the wake of the armistice. The arch was gone now, a member of that hallowed and forgotten class of demolished buildings and structures, neatly tucked in the ashcan of New York’s history like the thousands of Americans who perished in that fleshy struggle in Europe.
Yet Armand thought not of war, but of love. The woman in the lobby had struck him cold, had reminded him of that stabbing infatuation he had harbored on the boardwalk some months previous. He consciously embraced, for the first time in his score and eight years that he had never loved a woman wholly, fully, without detachment, had never risked his life for a kiss, had never adventured beyond his library, had lived too much like a Proust, as it were. He had never really committed himself, never walked that dangerous mortal avenue of enchantment where hearts are improved or destroyed by the whims of chance and time, by the fanciful amity or the churlish caprices of Cupid. Sure, he’d read everything on Minerva, he could quote Byron and Shelley better than any man on the continent: Armand was vastly au courant in all the poets and writers through the ages, satiating himself with the Greek and Roman classics from the very moment his eyes tracked print: had actualized a devotion throughout his years to the thrill of verse and the affectivity of classical romance, burning through Shakespeare and Horace, Hugo and Goethe, and a thousand other virtuosos of lyric and prose. He had accomplished all of these things and more. He was a fervent mercenary of the fecund work. However for the first time, standing at his familiar lofty window, stories above the clichéd city, Armand realized that his conceits of love existed beyond reality, and therefore did not exist at all. The book-dreaming and escapes to antiquity, the midnight devouring of Keats or the arm-chair liberties through the adventures of Don Juan, the sum total amounted to nothing more than a candle when contrasted with the authenticity of an earthly passion, and more, the seductive serendipity of a truly requited emotion. He looked to the blue parts of the sky, searching for the image of the woman from Coney Island, the Dulcinea who shattered his heart even months later, the woman that would be his, must be his, if ever she was manifested a second time.
Armand labored all the day long in a mental chamber of his fashioning. Calls came and were ignored. Secretaries and sub-clerks knocked and waited, and eventually scorned their solitary boss in the frustration of retreat. For a moment, the entire office queried whether The New Yorker would ever go to print, as even Ross and Thurber were turned away by Armand’s secretary. The man behind the door, that great man, that cherished paramour of compassion and goodness, that great living affable, well-dressed, unsurpassable, idyllic being, was lost in abstraction. The memory of the woman from the boardwalk, compounded with the conquering awareness that he had never found and might not ever find love – for who’s to say he would with certainty? – triggered in Armand a crippling fancy: that he should either discover love and live, or die alone and lost. It was the first melancholy moment in his life, and it crushed him even until the sun had long since set and the work traffic of the city had subsided, when all the lights of the empty buildings were his only company in a queer, foreign city, transformed in image by eyes awakened to the suddenness of a passing life and the acute yearning to find, however long it should take him, and however much he must suffer, the woman from the boardwalk, that immortal exemplar of female ideal that outlives by centuries the limits of any human body.
Armand opened the door leading from his office. Beyond it, the floor of the company was empty, muted and pale, and the only offer of light was made by the bleached ambience of fluorescent tubes suspended in the elevator foyer. Like a moth to a flame, he waded through the desks, the tiny islands where employees fought ennui by committing themselves to task, until he reached the familiar juncture of a down arrow. The button sprang to life at his fingertip, like a magic lamp in a scene from the Arabian Nights, while the rippling echoes of an elevator car in motion sounded up the shaft from the depths of the mezzanine. In the elevator, Armand looked askance on the man wearing his face in the reflection of the gilt paneling.
Outside the night air was cool. It pricked the cheeks and neck, and scolded fingers for neglecting gloves. Scattered trees in Madison Square oscillated between the surges of drafts caused by the escapes of air from the building corridors and alleys, releasing leaves from the bonds of dried, swaying branches and scattering them through the avenues. The autumn night sky had not the electricity of the summer evenings at Coney Island, but was a dead, somber black mass above the square, devouring the street lights as they vainly worked against the dark, howling weight of a late October hour. And yet Broadway lived like a festival of future centuries. Yellow taxis and motorcars streamed along the lighted streets, carrying the well-to-do down The Great White Way to the Palace Theatre and other diversions boasted by the expansive avenue, where it was a glowing summer afternoon all the night long: where “undiscovered prisms” and “rainbows squared” excited at and between every corner. Men and women of the jazz era rushed along the tonic light-bath, holding their hats from the wind while lines formed along the sidewalks for The Mask and the Face at Bijou, Annie Dear at Times Square, Fata Morgana at the Garrick, and The Red Falcon at Broadhurst, among other productions. The partial undergirding of Seldes’ The 7 Lively Arts, the terrible honesty of the decade, pulsated in the collective bosom of the airminded gentlemen and ladies on the go to cloud club lounges in skyscraper tops, the opening night of Houdini – that eccentric prince of the air, and the magical flaring shows with scores by Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern. A year before Gatsby, it seemed as though wonders would never cease, an opinion held by the city masses that in the end were but future unconsoled widows and widowers to a cultural interval beyond salvage.
Armand walked north from Madison Square, away from his own flat in Greenwich Village, along the eastern sidewalk of New York’s oldest main thoroughfare, puffing at a cigarette in the midst of a troubled mental state. The surrounding commotion of theatre-goers, a scene that would normally have affected Armand agreeably – for he absorbed the warmth and happiness in others – was lost on his soul. He walked along, contributing to his own growing despair with morose impulses, resigning his thoughts not even to the sullenness of his shadow under the bright awnings of familiar Broadway haunts. His mind was entangled in love and obsession, and not knowing the difference between the two, Armand finally resolved that it was perhaps only one of spelling. The woman from the boardwalk did not linger in his mind, she danced there, causing a dueling sense of omnipresent rapture and despair that was all-imprisoning to the virginal heart of a man in love or obsession for the first time.
Beneath the gaudy, splashing front of the Plymouth Theatre, Armand paused. “What Price Glory” glimmered in the suspended marquee, and the anodized, glass exterior doors betrayed a show in progress, as the only persons in the anteroom to the stage hall were a half dozen lackluster waitpersons, a manager in a florid red and white linen jacket, and a few of those well-dressed box-lobby loungers that seem to have a ticket for every drama and tragedy yet haven’t glimpsed so much as a curtain rising. Of a sudden, Armand’s heart was in his throat. His knees began to tremble. His breath became short. The very temples to his skull beat with coursing blood. She was there. The euphoric, impossible profile of the Coney Island enchantress was before him. The dazzling trailing brown curls, the erubescent hue of the left cheek, the munificence of her every arc and curve, bow and silken entreaty, magnifying herself in open self-love: the encomiastic dignity contained in the single extended black-gloved finger she placed in the palm of a foreigner, a rich Frenchman, who led her through the door to the applause of theatre life. She was mere feet from him, beyond the insignificant bronzed doors, being led into the atmosphere of the stage antics by the princely foreigner, dressed extravagantly in the Parisian pastiche. Armand wanted desperately to seize her, to call out, to storm the place and lay murder to anyone that should separate his hand from hers, to kill the man and ravage the girl, in a word, to commit himself to the most natural and basic of instincts. Yet he couldn’t so much as clinch the door’s handle. The tips of his hands were paralyzed, and the limbs and torso were in a stone tomb of lassitude, alien and suffocating. He was frozen in space and time. It was a ribald whimsy smote upon him by that winged cherub of Roman myth. All he could do was stand dumb at the door, in a presentient state of admiration and dread, knowing at once that he must stay, yet appreciating the sentimental imbalance between the pursued and the pursuer: he was prepared to purge himself of an intoxicating emotive suffering, while recognizing that the temptress of the dawn of earth might laugh in his face, or call on the Frenchman to rain blows upon him.