COURT OF PALMS.
Miss Michiko Kakutani The New York Times Times Square New York, N.Y.
My Dear Madam Kakutani,
Greetings from L. Goldkorn, Graduate, Akademie fur Musik, Philosophie und darstellende Kunst. It has been now twelve long years since you wrote the critique of my well-known memorial volume in the pages of the New York Times. Such insight, my dear! Artistry, end quotation. Ambition, end quotation. Commodious talent and humanity--these are quotations, too. With what joy did my eyes fall upon this praise. With what dreams of riches. Little wonder that I have not been able to forget the person who saw with such fellow feeling into the author's heart.
Kakutani? Kakutani? Michiko? What kind of name--thus have I posed to myself the question--is this? Javanese? Japanese? Like the place-mat weaver, Marimekko, a blond-headed Finn? Ja! A person of such taste is not likely American born. Now these many years later I take pen in hand to ask if perhaps my Laplandic lass would join me in a lunch?
Fear not! Do not misapprehend. First let me inform you that I have been for fifty-five years a happily married man. Ha! Ha! Did you think I intended a proposition? An adventure? Pas du tout! Perhaps a tea, a crustless sandwich, followed by a depth-discussion of music and literature, such as the thematics in the excellent O. Henry and G. D. Maupassant. A meeting of the souls, as described in the texts of Plato.
A happily married man. This is relative. Sometimes, in carefree moments, for example during a Riverside Drive promenade, I have slipped my hand about the flesh folds of Frau Goldkorn's waist. Once--this was in the years of D. D. Eisenhower, liberator of Europe; to be exact, April 1958--my lifetime companion requested that I blow upon the crimson polish she had applied to her toes. On another occasion, some force, a breeze or breezlet perhaps, caused me to wake: there, in the moonlit window, sat my yokemate, applying a hand massage to her breast fruits and pressing, between her sirloins, the Ivory soap dish. I had, at the gleam of a garter trolley, a paroxysm. And now? Clara now? Even though it is three-fifteen, Bulova watch time, on this summer afternoon, there she lies a-snoring. Sans hair, as the poet says, sans teeth, sans sense: sans all! Oh, Miss Michiko! Loneliness!
And how, Madam, are you? In good health? Eating the calcium-rich sardines? Are you in amazement that I can remember each word of your excellent review? Harken, Kakutani: The capital of Alabama is Montgomery. Highest point: Cheaha Mountain, 2,407 American feet. State flower: Camellia. Cotton, livestock, peanuts, hogs. The capital of Arizona is Phoenix. Highest point: Humphreys Peak, 12,633 feet. State flower: Cactus Blossom. Fruit, alfalfas, beef cattle. These are the memory gymnastics with which I keep myself in fettle. To ward off the disease that Dr. Goloshes calls "Uncle Al." And the capital, Miss Michiko, of Finland? Is it not Helsinki? Do we not find there rye oats, peat products, and excellent herring? I have always had a spot of softness for what Americans call platinum blondes. Gentlemen prefer them, too!
Where then shall we have our tete-a-tete? I am proposing the Court of Palms, the Hotel Plaza. This is at the corner of 59th Street and the famed Fifth Avenue, opposite the statue of Napoleon upon his horse. A pleasant tropical oasis in the heart of the busy city. Cooling drinks. Atmosphere suave. It was at this establishment that Mr. and Mrs. Goldkorn consumed at their wedding feast the Grand Carousel of confections. Those were the dark days of the Second World War. Literally dark: over the glass panes of the hotel stretched black linens, lest the least chink reveal to the lurking U-boats the blaze of happiness that burned in Leib Goldkorn's heart. Then away! Away to the ritual breaking of the hymen at the snow and ski lodge in Syracuse, New York. Honeymoon. Alas, there was not at that season any snow. Also, poor Clara here began the series of head pains that were the first signs of the dropsy. Still--ach, Miss Michiko, I have for some reason snapped here my Scripto pencil: still, we enjoyed the calm company each of the other and the sight of the squirrels and chipmunks busily hiding away their winter nuts.
Let us meet on the last day of August, the 31st, at 3, post meridiem. This is the time at the Court of Palms for cuplets of tea. Once more, like a gypsy, I read your thoughts: How will I recognize this prize-winning Graduate? Brief description: a five footer five. Woodwinder's lips. Ears growing still. Definitely hairless. And the style of my haberdashery now consists of large-size gabardines. To prevent any possible error I shall sport, in the buttonhole of my lumberman-type jacket, a sprig of--what is your favorite? Gardenia? Carnation? Forget-me-not!
Will we establish, at our rendezvous, a rapport? Will we become intimates? Only time, as they say, will tell. As summer turns to autumn with its falling leaves, and then winter comes with its Mackinaws and ginger snaps, our friendship may ripen. There is no need to restrict our intercourse to dry and dusty books. What young man, bursting with vigor, reads these days Washington Irving or Anatole France? My expertise is on woodwinds. The day may come when, reaching around the torso, I might instruct you upon the fingering of the flute. Is it not the case that in the Finnish sauna cold water is thrown upon the red hot rocks? And that the saunaists are beaten on the back and the loin sector with twigs and twiglets of thorns? Perhaps you can make upon my own shoulders--these are hirsute, like the flesh of ancient elephants that are sometimes discovered intact beneath the Finlandic ice--a demonstration. Yes, you can beat me! Beat me! I will not cry out. I will not beg for mercy. Like the lusty Lemminkainen, stalwart hero of the Kalevala, the folkish epic of your people, this devoted Leib will bear with stiff lip his fate.
Sixteen days! Sixteen days, Miss! Thus must wait, turning the calendar pages, the triste Leib for his tryst.
Sincerely yours, L. Goldkom, Graduate A.f.M.P.u.d.K.
Tea for two, two for the tea
A fine summer day. Too torrid, perhaps, for my red-and-black plaid. One hundred percent sheep's wool. But the high standards of the Court of Palms demand of its patrons jacket, Arrow-brand shirt, and tie. Also Panamanian hat.
A me for you, a you for me
On the outside of my Thom McAns, a shoeshine; heel-lifts within. Nose nicks and chin nicks from the Gillette brand. Look sharp, ha-ha! Feel sharp! Under each armpit, a bay rum sponge. Final perusal: Finnish phrase book. Check. Senior citizen underground pass, with transfer. Check. One cylinder, LifeSaver-brand pastilles, multi-flavors. Check. Foil-wrapped sanitary, Trojan-type, watchdog against disease. Check. Long odds, undeniably, not even the chance of a Chinaman; but is not the motto of the scouting movement, Sir R. Baden-Powell founder, be prepared?
No personage near us to see or to hear us
"Mr. Goldkorns! Why are you whistling? Why cheerful and chipper?"
Can this be? It is less than one hour since I administered the noontime injection, after which it is this hausfrau's habit to fall deep in the arms of Morpheus, awakening only at the evening prospect of mushroom cream. Clairvoyant Clara! To sense my guilty secret!
"Whistlings? What whistlings? Perhaps, you know, a few bars of Hatikva. "
"What are you doing with the Admiral? Help! He's taking the television to the brothers Glickman!"
"No, no. Calm yourself, Madam Goldkorn. I would never remove this set to the shop for prawns."
What an amazement! Shadows, wisps, illusions--that is all, with her cataract-clouded eyes, that Clara can see. Still, she notes my presence at the back of the Admiral, an instrument that has been blank from the moment that N. Armstrong, a non-Jew, walked in haziness upon the surface of the moon. 20 July. Anno Domini, 1969. Exhaustion of the vacuums. Still, like drowning victims who cry out from within the wreckage of their sunken vessel, or tap-tap-tap upon its iron hull, voices emerge yet from the wood-style veneer. To these ghosts--one can barely discern whether they lisp in English or some foreign tongue--the comatose Clara likes to cock an ear. To while away interminable hours! Interminable years!
"Mr. Goldkorns, I am not hearing Merv Griffin."
"Wait. We have flow warm-ups." Indeed, I have turned on the instrument, but not before first leaning behind it to extract the remains of this year's savings--nine fives, with the image of A. Lincoln, who set free the slaves, and two George Washington ones. Forty-seven dollars. Not counting the expense of florals, which I now remove from the Frigidaire.
No friendly relations to make us vacations
"Flowers? Why flowers? And why in such hot weather a lumber-jacket?"
We won't have it known, honey--
"Speak, sir! What is that odor? Bay rums! I am smelling bay rums!"
That we own a Bell telephone
"What is this funny business?"
Day will break and you will wake in order to bake da-dee-dum-dee ein Honigkuchen!
"Help! Police! Is hankypankies!"
For me to take for all the goys to see!
"Where are you going? Out windows? Forsaking! Der man farlozt zayn weib!"
We will raise a family, a boy for you a girl--Ah, Martha! Little Martha!--for me
"Der shmutsiker mamzer! No Campbell's chowder! No Slim Jim!"
I'm going to have tea for two, dee dindle dum, dum dindle dee, and two are arriving for tea!
From the circle of Columbus to the Monument of Napoleon we have but a twenty-minute perambulation--a stroll among, upon the right hand, the toot-tooting taxis, the eager knickerbockers all helter and skelter; and, upon the left, the ladies with borzois, the lasses and lads with their wooden hoops. And here, all golden, is the statue of Bonaparte, a gift of the children of France. With awe I stare up at the conqueror not only of continents, Italy and Egypt and the Holy Roman Empire, but of Josephine and Marie-Louise, heir to a mighty throne. With his outstretched hand he points me, a fellow five-fiver, across the crowded thoroughfare to the entrance of the Hotel Plaza. There smart liverymen stand at attention. Sunshine gleams in the window glass. Atop the green-stained turrets wave the stars and stripes--fifty of the former; do you know how many of the latter? Thirteen! One for each of the original colonies, of which the first to ratify the Constitution was wee Delaware: one of only four states whose capital begins with the identical alphabetical letter. Chemicals, petroleum, broiling chickens. Dover. So, even in this moment of doubt, of qualms, all mental functions remain intact. No sign of Uncle Al.
Doubt? Qualms? Can Leib Goldkorn be suffering, in the vernacular, cold toes? As if he were some youngling who has never eaten wild oats? Or experienced a fertilization? Think of the motto of the Artilleryman of Austerlitz. Was it not, L'attaque! L'attaque! Toujours l'attaque!? I must copy the Corsican: forward! Across the boulevard, you boulevardier! Yet much as I try to lift them, these McAns remain stuck to the heated pavement. Beware, Leib Goldkorn! You are heading toward a Waterloo. Imagine what Madam Kakutani will see, as she gazes across the Court of Palms table. A Bonaparte? A Beau Brummell? Not precisely. A hairless old Jew, one who must make water eight times in the night. Size of gabardines: 44. It is not too late. Retreat! Sound the retreat! I might still return to hearth, home, and hausfrau.
No! Never! No, no! There now arises in the eye of the mind the Late City Final Edition, 3 April, 1985. Ah, the smell of the newsprint. The rustle of crisp pages. And what do I see? Section C, page 24, column 3. Here, all afresh, are the words that Miss Michiko used to describe the present speaker: A person of some culture and sensitivity. End quotation. Ah! Wise woman! She knows I have been a Glockenspieler for both Der Konigliche und Koenichliche Hof-Operntheater and the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, as well as a former subscriber, New York Herald Tribune. Hyvaa paivaa, rouva. This is "Good afternoon, Madame," in the Finnish tongue. A heel click, a hand kiss, a bow. Hauska tutustua. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance." Away, abdominal butterflies! Bulova watch time: 3:07. Our imp is becoming impatient.
Everything at the Court of Palms is as it was upon my nuptial night. The tables with tableclothes and the chairs with wicker woven into the backs. The band platform with piano and double bass. Here are the smoothly gliding waiters with napkins over their arms. And at the center, just as during the dark days of war, is the display of eclairs, petit-fours, and the fingers of ladies. I can see those same candy-coated almonds, pale pink, Easter yellow, a grassy green, which--there, at that corner table, where three dames now eat their fritters--my brand-new bride threw playfully into the air and caught with dexterity in her open mouth.
"May I help you?"
The speaker: a woman of heft, dark-haired, in my judgment a cup number C.
"I am wearing a tie with a knot. Also a surcoat. You see before you a citizen since the year 1943. I request, therefore, a table: a table, you know; you know the kind I mean--"
"I'm sorry. What kind of table ?"
Across my cheekbones spreads the strawberry flush, up and over my brow. This awkward moment is reminiscent of the time that, suffering a stoppage, I was examined by a Goloshes, M.D., assistant. A woman of gender. Shirtless before her. Also undershirtless. With pantswaist at the ankles. My voice drops to a whisper: "For two."
I am led to a spot at the back of the Court, next to the wall of mirrors. Placing my lumberman on the back of my chair, I sit down. To one side, the musical bandstand, at the moment absent of musicians. To the other, one of the palms-in-pots that have given this room, formerly, it seems, a chamber for squash games or tennis, its name. A prima location. The Court itself is perhaps one-half full, with a yield of some thirty or thirty-five women and perhaps one dozen men. More guests walk the hallways on the far side of the transparent partition. But where is Miss Michiko? Spread before me are coiffures in profusion: redheads and brunettoes, locks in gray and curls in black. There is the twin who has the Toni, and there a peruke in pink. Yes, I can see the false goldilocks, which have from a bottle been bleached. But nowhere, in this sea of tresses, is there a Baltic Sea blonde.
Now comes forth a waiter, a sophisticate with a waxed-type moustache. "Would the gentleman care to order?"
I hand wave the menu away. "Grand Carousel," I say. "Tutti-fruttis for two."
Impossible to disguise, in that attendant's eyes, the look of amazement. For this old favorite costs, if I am remembering correctly, three twenty-five.
Three twenty-five! Little hand on three! Big hand on five! Almost a half-hour late! An unthinkable thought: what if the coquette has already arrived and, not seeing the dawdler, departed? Could such a thing be? No, no: for would I not have seen her going out as I, but a brief moment tardy, came in? Then where is she? In this cosmopolitan Court there are all manners and races of people: Jews and non-Jews, an Afrikaner, Malayan traders, whispering Arabians, and even, with short black hair and her face pressed to the partition glass, a tea-colored Nipponese. But nowhere, in all this motley, is my far-flung Finn.
Saanko suudella kattasi, rouva? This, on page 9 of my phrase book, means, "May I kiss your hand, Madame?" An excellent way to break apart the ice. Ah, here comes the Carousel of confitures. Also a pipkin of Lipton-brand tea. Should I have, whiling the time, a jelly? Perhaps a frozen pudding? What's that: a pandowdy? Leib Goldkorn, what are you thinking? If I partake now, and the Kakutani should spy a missing maraschino or half-eaten ingesta, might she not take offense?
What is that sound? Piano chords? Yes, and a pianist. His bent back, and his hair pony, is toward me; the reflection of his face and hand knuckles may be seen on the waxed surface of this Bosendorfer-brand grand. Accompaniment? A near hairless bassist. Trills. Tremolants. Tremolos. Then music hall tunes. F-sharp, f-fiat, c-sharp. Some Enchanted Evening.
Have I the daring to seek out once more the time on the Bulova? Three forty-one, and the seconds hand circling, endlessly circling, 3:42, 3:43, like a prisoner in a prison yard. It must be admitted that some thing has gone amiss. Is it possible that my admirer is not going to come? Have I mistaken the time of the assignation? The agreed-upon date? Horrors! Is August a month in which one may not eat oysters? Thirty days hath September--With frail fingers I fish forth the folio of Finnish phrases. Alas! The paper I seek is no longer inside. Ah, there it is, atop the caramel clusters. On the instant I unfold the creases of the sweet billet-doux:
August 22, 1997
From the desk of Michiko Kakutani The New York Times
Mr. Leib Goldkorn 130 W. 80th Street Apt. 5-D New York, NY 10024
Dear Mr. Goldkorn:
Ms. Kakutani has asked me to inform you that she will meet you at the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel at 3 PM on August 31st.
Yours truly, R. Bernstein Assistant to Ms. Kakutani
Speak for yourself, Miles Standish, ha, ha, ha! Thus said the Indian maiden to John Smith when he attempted to propose on behalf of his friend. Surely it is significant that Miss Michiko similarly uses an amanuensis when enscribing this note of romance. Too bashful to reveal your heart, my little Pocahontas? Must you speak through a lackey? Yours truly, note you that? Can that be the emotion of a stranger? An anonymous pusher of pen? Never! No, never! Ach! Each time I see these words, Yours truly, truly yours, I record degrees of warming within my S. Klein drawers. 3 PM. Thus writes the Pilgrim of my heart. August 31 st. There has been no error. Ah, coquette! Why such coyness? Do not hide behind others. Play not peek-a-boo in back of a palm pot. Show yourself!
Missa rautatieasema on? "Where is the train station, please?" No, no: mistaken page.
Onniteluni rouva charmikkaasta ja ilahduttavasta hatustasi. "My compliments, Madame, upon your charming and delightful hat." With such urbanity one thaws the cool Nordic heart. Even the strictest rabbi, surely, would permit the sampling of a small gooseberry tart. Voila! Excellent crusts. But thirst-provoking. This tea is now like the cucumber. "Waiter! If you please! A schnapps!"
"Of what sort, sir?"
"Plum. You know, plum brandy. And will you have the kindness to--this will be our little secret, ha-ha--leave the bottle."
"But of course. It will just take a moment to cross to the Oak Room Bar."
And no sooner has my servant departed than there--there, Across a crowded room, ha-ha-ha!--I see her, precisely as, for these many long years, I have imagined her: tall, firm of flesh, twin-bosomed, with golden curls falling like coin stacks to her shoulders. A glance at my Bulova. Exactly 4, post meridiem. Of course! Spring back! Fall forward! I have failed to adjust for summer savings! It was now, by her watch, and all the millions of clocks in our Eastern zone, exactly 3 PM! Mystery solved! Oh, my eager Aryan! A Joannie on the spot! With joyfulness I jump to my feet.
"Miss! Oh, Miss!"
That cry fills the whole of the Court and causes even the electrified candles to flicker. The Nordic stands in her tracks. In a daze of delight, with, in my nether parts, a definite peppercorn feeling, I dart between the tables to her side. Then she turns and casts her pale eyes and the dark pinpricks of her pupils upon me.
"Kakutani!" I cry. "Let us have a coition!"
I shall make a tall story shorter. Mistaken identity. Mild indiscretion. Understandable error. Why, then, upon hearing my explanation that the wrong pig has been taken by the tail, create such a stigma? Or strike with one's weighty purse, and on the noggin, a nonagenarian? Or send flying, for a faux pas, his Panama hat? This is an overreaction, in my opinion. Luckily, the pianist, and the bassist too, break into a lively melody, Oklahoma--Sooner state, mining interests, natural gas--in order to distract the teatime guests from the hullabaloo. At my table slivowitz awaits. Thoughtfully uncorked. Chin-chin! Skoal! To my Norse nymph! On and on the seconds hand goes tickticking by. Is it my imagination, or is the boulevard without falling into shade, into shadow? Cheers! Down to the hatch! Mud in your eye!
Sleep! Have I been asleep? And for how many hours? Look! Look, friends! It has grown dark in the Court of Palms. No sunlight shines through the outer windows. The electric candles have lost their current. The Court itself is almost deserted. Here and there a waiter is removing, from a table, the tablecloth. Both the pianist and the baldheaded bassist have vanished. A lady with a costume of a hospital nurse, including starched headdress, is running over the carpets a Hoover. Ehka voimme viettaa tunnin poreammeessa. Saunassa. Ehka voimme hakata toisiamme vihdalla? These words, on a warm breath, with a mouth moue, will not by Miss Michiko be uttered in proximity to L. Goldkorn's ear. No sauna. No steambath. No healthful blows of thorns.
"Garcon! If you please!"
The waiter, wax on his moustache tips, and a goiter from a surfeit of sweets, steps to my table. I hold up a fiver.
Waiter: "What is that?"
"For you, my good fellow. For the condiment Carousel. For the schnapps. When you bring change, make a deduction of fifteen cents. Excellent service."
"Sir, the bill is one hundred and twenty dollars, tax not included. I have it here."
"What? Am I in your opinion a country pumpkin? I have purchased these sweetmeats before. The cost was three American dollars and one American quarter."
The waiter, instead of responding, places before me first the menu and then the bill. Imagine the depths of my horror upon the discovery that the charge for the schnapps alone equals sixty dollars, the tea ten, and the Carousel twenty-five. I can, through the cords in my throat, barely utter objections.
"Mistake. Definite error. Sixty and ten and twenty-five, this is not even one hundred dollars. It is only: wait, I making lightning calculations--"
"But, sir, the Carousel is twenty-five dollars per person. You ordered for two."
"Wasser! Ein biBchen Wasser!"
Something in my manner must alarm him, for, with tea towel flapping, he turns on his heel and makes for the kitchen. Now what must occur with the speed of lightning is not a mental calculation but a physical act. I jump to my feet. I pluck up my Panama. Then, pausing only for a quick bite of crumb cake, I dash for the exit of the Court of Palms. Has anyone seen me? Will I be called before der Polizei? But no one seems to notice. The Hooverer continues hoovering. The waiters clear off their tables. The doorman, with finger and cap brim, gives the salute. Only one person, the black-haired Oriental, remains with her face pressed still to the glass. What's this? A shy smile? A wee winsome wave? But I have no time to engage, with this Nipponese cleansing lady, in banter. Out I dash, into the lamp-lit air. Run, Leib Goldkorn! Faster! Yet faster! But where am I to run to, thief in the night? To the Admiral, with its whisperings; to Madam Goldkorn, lifetime companion, whose teeth rest, like a mollusk, inside a water glass? And what am I running from? For no matter with what speed I dash the avenues, I cannot escape in the depths of these gabardines, the still raging fire, or the painful knowledge that I have been by Miss Michiko, in the vernacular, left standing up.
Leslie Epstein is the director of the creative writing program at Boston University. His eighth book of fiction, Ice Fire Water, a new Leib Goldkorn trilogy, will be published by Norton in September.