“God’s current biographer, Jack Miles, writes that after the Book of Job, God shut His Divine Yap, and when He spoke again, it was in His younger Son’s more merciful New Testament accent.”
“Jesus had an older brother?”
“Lucifer. Changed His name to Satan after the Hell-raising. As Jacob’s name changed to Israel—‘he who fights with God’—after the angel-wrestling bout. According to Miles, Job’s reply to The Bully’s taunts, ‘Now I get it,’ was sardonic, not submissive. And God had the omniscience to get the point and evolve. When Frederick Olmsted designed Manhattan’s Central Park, how could he have imagined how many people would get murdered within his Eden-manqué?”
It was March, 1979, and I was walking with John out of the Dakota, two weeks before the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania. We crossed into the Park. Crocuses poked through melting snow. Trees remained winter skeletons, and an icy wind didn’t know whether to clear the sky or deliver a blizzard. I sneezed. John did not bless me.
“So, Doc,” he interrupted, “go back—John Gray…more/less a cynic than Schopenhauer?”
“I don’t think anyone can be more cynical than Schopenhauer. Maybe Gray’s Schopenhauer reincarnated. Or Gray is merely a fractal iteration of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic paisley.”
“Paisley repeats its forms in orders of ascending and descending magnitude.” I sneezed again. “Everything’s the same thing over and over again, big and small. Blake’s ‘See a World in a Grain of Sand.’”
John shook his head. “Doc, you just said, even God evolved—so there is novelty.”
“Is novelty progress?” I asked.
We were walking to see The China Syndrome, which I called a Jane Fonda movie and John argued was Jack Lemmon’s. We were both wrong; it catapulted Michael Douglas, who also produced it, into stardom.
In 1963, when the Beatles sang, “She was just seventeen,” Alice was seven. Now she was twenty-three and sitting on a bench in Central Park as two men approached, talking, oblivious to patches of melting ice and her crying, which she stopped. They passed her, then paused. One returned. Alice looked up into the eyes behind the wire-rim glasses.
“You’re Lennon,” Alice said. “I’m Alice.”
Lennon looked around as if for a rabbit. “It’s too cold to sit on a park bench.” He pointed to the guitar case beside her. “You play?”
His tall, shivering friend joined them and sneezed. “Bless me,” he said.
“Gesundheit,” Alice said. She unzipped the case and took out the guitar. Lennon whistled at the classical wire-wrapped bass three. Even after her hair had grown back in, her muscles always felt as tight as those strings, but she began, “Sleepers, Awake! A Voice Is Calling.” She hadn’t mastered it yet. Would she ever? Alice worried her fingers would betray her as they had for the lesson. Before long, though, she was in the music’s spell and it led her farther than she knew she knew. Lennon whistled the melody. Startled, Alice looked up again into those eyes.
“You’ve put the voicing above the accompaniment,” Lennon praised.
“My teacher did that,” Alice said.
“Doc and I are going to the movies.”
Lennon put her guitar back. He unpinned from her case a blue SAVE LENNON button from four years prior when the US government had tried to deport him. Lennon’s Brit friend wore only a thick fisherman sweater and a striped wool scarf. Lennon read the words printed around the button’s circumference like a coin’s, ‘All We Are Saying Is…Give John A Chance,’ the echo of Lennon’s anti-Vietnam-War anthem.
“Where’d this come from?” Lennon asked.
“I had those buttons made to raise money for Your defense fund. I raised $300.”
Lennon pinned the button back. “Come along to the film with us?”
“John—” Doc began.
Lennon raised His palm for peace.
Like a Christmas cracker, the girl’s red turtleneck sweater stuck out the top of her coat and a patchwork skirt out the bottom, touching the top of her boots. John offered his hand to steady her, taking the guitar case to carry. We called them “birds” then. Her chest was as flat as a boy’s. She noticed my glance and blushed. A navy wool cap covered her head. Then I understood what John had grasped immediately. My mother had died from breast cancer. I should have known better with a girl like her.
Of course she was one of the incalculable iron filings attracted to John in whose magnetic field I had enjoyed more than my share of cast offs. The difference between me and the faithful was that I didn’t believe, and therein lay my value to John. I’d met him in an ER when I was interning before I gave up cardiac arrest for academia. He’d accompanied an overdosed companion and was still waiting after I’d finished that shift and returned another shift later. Maybe that was when I unconsciously understood he was a healer, not me. But I always saw John as I see the world, looking through it. And I guess he always saw through me.
Lennon wouldn’t walk any more in the Park because Doc kept sneezing and Alice didn’t know why her, but He bundled them all into a cab on Central Park West to the movie. He put her guitar beside the driver, and the three filled the passengers’ seat. Alice removed her cap in the overheated cab, so she knew they knew.
“I wasn’t crying because of—,” Alice said, rubbing her scalp. “It’s growing in. I just had an awful lesson.” She smoothed her long skirt. “My teacher lives three blocks from the Dakota. He yells, ‘Females should never play guitar in pants.’ I always sit in the Park after so I can look at—
your building,” she stammered. “I never dreamed—of course, I dreamed, but—”
Doc either laughed or sneezed. “Better than a papal audience, yeah,” he imitated a Liverpool accent.
Alice sat between them. She steeled herself and accused Lennon, “You don’t sound Scouse,” she said. “You sound posh Brit like him.”
“Guilty,” Lennon agreed. “But talk is song, isn’t it?” He waved His hands. “It’s all in the air.”
Alice looked out the taxi window at the passing trees, cars, and almost pinched herself.
“What’s your accent?” Doc asked her.
“I don’t have one,” Alice said. “I’m from here.”
Both men laughed.
“I’m from Queens. I’m a Credit Union teller. Engaged to—he’s taken over his father’s bakery—but everything’s been on hold since—” she rubbed her scalp again, “and I live with my parents in the house I grew up in and I see all my old teachers at the bank. I wanted to go to college, but my brother is an electrician with my Dad, and I’m a girl—but since they thought I was dead and there’d be no wedding to pay for, I got my wish to see if I could study with—and he accepted me maybe because my doctor at Sloan knew him, but anyway, it got me into the City—and now, meeting You,” she ran out of breath.
“But you said you’re from here,” Doc said.
How could she explain about the City and outer boroughs to a foreigner?
“Let her be,” Lennon said. “Jupiter’s moon Io has active volcanoes,” He said. “I saw the Voyager photos. You can get there from here.”
Alice could hear Him even through the Americanized upper-class British accent, but she lost the sense of most of the words. Who could believe she was sitting beside Him, could smell the soap He used, see two day’s blond beard stubble along His jaw, His long, shiny strawberry blond hair? His face was tan and young, although she knew He was 38. His birthday was October 9th. His profile down to a sharp Adam’s apple was sculptured. He was more beautiful than Alice had ever thought before. All she had to do was move her right pinky, and she would be touching His thigh. But if she moved a finger, she might wake up. Lennon was asking her something.
“What was so awful about your lesson?”
The cab was leaving the Park, turning onto Central Park South towards Fifth Avenue.
“Oh, everything,” Alice said. “I have no business in a master class. But I argue with him. It’s the German in me. I’m a Yunker.”
“So was Bismarck,” Doc said.
Lennon smiled. “He’s a visiting professor at NYU is our Doc.”
“NYU,” Alice echoed.
As the taxi pulled up at the Paris Theatre across the street from the Plaza Hotel, I almost asked Alice if it were John she worshipped or the City, but instead I watched as John held her hand, helping her out of the taxi. Then I saw her standing there beside him as he autographed one of the bills he paid the driver. Alice had pulled her blue cap back on. She looked pale and fragile next to John. His instantaneous recognition identified passersby as discreet New Yorkers or ogling tourists. Eyed and evaluated by these others, Alice indeed looked triumphantly German. You could see capital letters in her eyes. Yes, she was with Him. It was a blustery March day in 1979, and I don’t know if the sun came out at that moment and shined down on her like Jacob’s Ladder, but that’s how memory rescreens it.
We saw the film and talked about it as we walked to FAO Schwarz across Fifth Avenue. John said he wanted to pick up something for his three-year-old son, but I rightly guessed he wanted to send Alice home with a gift. He directed us both to go in search of “something for Sean” while he made arrangements for a car to drive her home, a gesture which predated by two years Dudley Moore’s in the first Arthur movie.
What would Sean like, Alice wondered. What could he lack? She had only been in FAO Schwarz once before in her life, and she didn’t remember it the way it looked now. There were old-fashioned stairs along a wall and a room filled with trains. Maybe it had been at Christmastime; she had been taken there to look, not buy. Everything was overpriced in the City. From that rare visit, Alice remembered more clearly the screeching and pee smell of the subway.
Now, Lennon wanted her to choose something for His younger son. She rejected swords, bows and arrows, and guns. Ditto stuffed animals although she liked the Steiff raccoon’s robber’s eyes. She walked to a glass counter topped with jack in the boxes. The Snoopy one showed Schroeder playing the piano on one side. On another side, a bluebird held airborne a musical score Snoopy joyfully played on a concertina. She was in the process of buying it when the young salesman froze at Lennon’s appearance beside her.
“It’s snowing,” Lennon said. “Must get you home safely.”
While He had spoken, something happened between Him and the salesman, and suddenly there were two jack-in-the-boxes in front of Lennon, and he was signing one with a black marker, putting another marker in her hand. “Please sign this for Sean,” Lennon asked. Then Doc appeared, and he said the town car was outside. A wrapped jack in the box in an FAO Schwarz shopping bag was put in Alice’s hands. A crowd had gathered and was following Lennon.
“I’m always on the lam,” He said.
“Mark 5:24,” Doc said.
The salesman put the unwrapped toy she had signed, “All you need is love, Alice Yunker, 3/13/79” in another shopping bag that Lennon quickly accepted, and before she could say anything, He was gone. Doc had her guitar and led her to a long, black Lincoln. It was snowing.
Before the dazed salesman wrapped it, I had seen what John wrote on the bottom of Alice’s jack-in-the-box: To Alice—Goo goo g’ joob, the prime numbers of that March Tuesday, and his signature cartoon face. At the limo, falling snow on her freckled nose and reddened cheeks melted into overflowing tears.
“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. “Sometimes he just has to be the Cheshire Cat, leaving us nothing but his grin.”
Alice settled into the plush leather seat. “You don’t know,” she wiped her wet cheeks. “He saved me!”
Ian watched the limo pull out into City traffic and gave up on finding a taxi in the freak March storm. He didn’t remember the trip downtown to his Village apartment that afternoon, nor any particular meeting with John thereafter. All the decades later, what brought her to mind? He guessed it was the publication of a sour old-w(h)ine-in-a-new-book by John Gray, along with recently streaming The China Syndrome on his iPad. Memory worked in the manifold structure of spacetime and brain convolution. Ian pictured his cerebral cortex pressing together the new Gray book, the image of his abandoned first wife, and Alice’s relic jack-in-a-box, just like the concertina Snoopy played on one of its sides. Ian had returned to England only briefly after 1979’s marital separation, for the divorce. In the ensuing years, he lived with a second wife in New York, also Chicago and Stanford, and he would likely die in Alice’s City unless like a salmon, he was called back to Canterbury’s River Stour.
Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980. They say that as he lay dying before midnight in the ER at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt, “All My Loving” began playing on the P.A. Ian was back in the City by then, but there was no funeral. He avoided Strawberry Fields in Central Park where Alice had sat crying on the bench. He remembered her tears bookending the encounter, and the ladder of sunlight coming out of the darkening sky. Ian had seen the Towers fall and the Freedom Tower rise. He had survived the Deconstructionists and prevailed as a major purveyor of Northrop Frye’s superior reading of texts. He walked around Washington Square Park as another fall semester began, the sycamores browning and the maples tipping red.
Frye had gotten it right, recognizing that, like the four seasons in temperate latitudes, there were only four story types human beings could tell. Tragedy was autumn’s narrative. Ian was arguing against John Gray’s pessimism: mortality’s bitter winter sweetened summer’s bounty. He hoped he wasn’t mumbling aloud. Neither meritless nor emeritus just yet. A pack, hardly a “blush” of boys skateboarded the 73-year-old onto a park bench. A murther of crows. A zeal of zebras. Adoration like Alice’s aroused aversion in him in the present even more than in the past. A little boy with his mother, the same age as Ian’s grandson and daughter, walked by. The four year old was bickering as the young woman explained the trees’ changing colors.
“But they’re ugly,” the child protested, kicking brittle sycamore leaves.
“They’re not all,” his mother said. “You like red and yellow.”
“I like green!”
Nothing green can stay, Ian thought, rousing himself to walk again. The high-rises around him evoked Tintern Abbey. He saw the steep and lofty cliffs and thought of John’s little acts of kindness and the sweet sounds and harmonies he remembered. He smelled the Hudson on the west wind and trounced Gray with Shelley’s irreversible: “If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”