portion of the artwork for Lou Gaglia's fiction

About Beauty
Lou Gaglia

“I’ll miss the courtyard,” I said to the security guard, who smirked back at me from outside our complex gate.

“You’ll have your own yard,” he said.

“I like it here, but … no choice.”

“Are you kidding? This place is a fricken jail,” he said. “Look at it.”

The gate rose high to a bricked arch. Walls of brick and barred windows ran down the full length of Cherry Street. The cars parked behind us sat inches one behind the other all the way around the block, while the drivers of other cars circled fruitlessly, waiting for someone to leave. The security guard, whose name I didn’t know, tapped my arm.

“Good luck to you upstate. Get out of this dump.”

Upstairs, Laurie sat on the floor going through baby clothes. Dinner was ready, but she was busy sorting, so I sat on the floor next to Maggie and kicked off my sneakers. Maggie opened and closed a pop-up book, interested in the very moment that the rabbit unfolded its presence.

“I haven’t said yes or no yet,” I said over my shoulder to Laurie, and she sighed. “More money, a backyard, and office work instead of teaching. Twenty years of the lower east side. Maybe it’s enough for me …”

She didn’t say anything, and I got up, lifting Maggie with me and kissing her. “Let’s spoon the rice, Mag,” I said, and headed into the kitchen. Soon Laurie came into the kitchen too, and sighed again. Her slightly rounded belly leaned into me. She moved me with the back of her hand and took the big rice scooper away from me, and I sat at the kitchen table. Maggie slipped into my lap, and I looked down at the courtyard.

* * *

After dinner I took Maggie out for our usual walk. All summer we’d gone the six floors down the elevator after dinner and strolled the courtyard, usually meeting up with the same two older women, Sadie and Carol. They sat on the end of the last green bench along the curved courtyard sidewalk.

“What are you doing? Where are you going?” Sadie sang as Maggie made her way in front of me. “Would you like to feed Blackie today?”

Carol blew a raspberry at Maggie, as usual, but Maggie was intent on Sadie’s offer.

“You may feed her this many peanuts,” said Sadie, holding a few of them in her hand. “But only drop them down on the sidewalk behind me.”

“Yes,” I put in.

“Because squirrels are wild animals.”

“They bite,” I added.

“Oh, summer’s almost over,” Sadie said to me while Maggie dropped the peanuts behind the bench. “School starts for you soon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Either here … or upstate, maybe. I was offered an assistant principal’s job.”

“Oh … well, you have sweet Maggie, and another one on the way. You have to go, then.”

Carol lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “You don’t want to be here. This is no place for kids.”

I looked at the arrangement of flowers fenced off behind them. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“God bless you whatever you decide,” Sadie said, and I broke my gaze from the flowers to look at her fully.

* * *

Once up the long set of brick stairs, outside the huge courtyard gate, I lifted Maggie and held her in the crook of my elbow, her head as high as my head, and crossed over to Catherine Street past the druggy grocery store. Its pit bulls weren’t out front, but I spotted their owners just inside the grocery’s doorway. My favorite bakery next to it had closed and been boarded up.

On the Chinatown part of Catherine Street, there was the busy sidewalk-to-sidewalk crowd in front of the bakeries and vegetable stands, but across the street in front of the school the foot traffic was lighter, so I always crossed there with Maggie high on my shoulder, both of us looking at what was ahead. Chatham Square was next, and then we headed up the Bowery, the thick crowd across from Confucius Plaza making it difficult for me to put Maggie down to walk.

Chinatown had its faults. Its sidewalks were often filthy and crowded all along the Bowery and Mott and Bayard streets, especially near the restaurants there or in front of the vegetable stands on Catherine or East Broadway. Steam rose above manholes in the street, and it was so steamy during the summer that I was used to and even enjoyed sometimes the sweat that dripped from my chin. Crowds on Mott Street or East Broadway packed the sidewalks and moved so slowly and hardly gave way, so that I often gave up and walked in the street instead. Some people—grown men and women—“hocked” and spat whatever was deep in their throats onto the sidewalk; others, especially in the morning, sometimes stopped walking to close one nostril with a finger and blow out the contents of the other onto the sidewalk.

But the faces …

At the corner of Bayard and the Bowery, I set Maggie down at last and held her hand and we walked slowly. I watched the many faces and decided to count the beautiful ones. How many beautiful faces would there be, I wondered, from that corner to Elizabeth Street? I counted twelve on the short block alone, and explained to Laurie in my mind, “It’s just about beauty, not anything else.” It was the beauty that I loved—twelve beautiful faces, of so many different backgrounds, in only that short block—and I felt a kind of ache.

I picked up Maggie again as beautiful face number 13 turned the corner of Elizabeth Street at the same time. Then another passed near the hobby horse in front of the pharmacy, where Maggie struggled to get down from my arms. I reached into my pocket for a quarter and lifted her onto the horse’s back and slid the quarter in. A fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth beauty passed one after another as the familiar hobby horse music began to play. I held onto Maggie’s waist while the horse rose and came down.

Elizabeth Street was cleaner than Bayard Street. People sat on their high narrow stoops across the street. Farther down the block was the Chinese mall and the police precinct, and across from that was Jin Fong Restaurant with its three-floor-high escalator. The beauty who read books written in Chinese would be there, acting as a type of ground-floor receptionist or greeter.

The music stopped but Maggie didn’t make a move to get down, so I laughed and dug for another quarter and then held her for another ride. The owner of the pharmacy, a balding Chinese man, came out and we said hello.

“Hey, how much for the hobby horse,” I said. “I’m moving and I want to buy it for her.”

“Not for sale,” he said.

“Fifty bucks.”

“I make that on it in one day. Where are you moving?”

“Westchester, I think. Maybe a new job.”

“Westchester.” He thought Westchester over. “You rich?”

“No.”

“It’s rich up there. Rich and boring.”

The music stopped and I lifted Maggie off. The hobby horse owner saw my frown. “But it’s nice, I guess. You know, it’s beautiful there, yeah. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

“But no hobby horse,” he added roughly and reached up to pull down one of the store’s steel gates.

* * *

The Chinese mall had a short escalator that led down to a circle of stores, all containing cheap jewelry and dolls and plaster banks, necklaces and alarm clocks and baby clothes and Hello Kitty pillows. I held Maggie for the ride down, cautioning her away from touching the black rubber railing, and then we walked the lap of stores and rode up again. “Up, up, up, up,” I sang near her face, bending to kiss her cheek.

I’d stopped counting the beautiful faces, but estimated another nine or ten in the Chinese mall. Upstairs were closed doctors’ offices, and on the ground level were the elevators, and near the door was one large carpeted office where a woman sat behind a glass desk at a computer. Across from her was a large easy chair and on the wall above was a colorful sign—the name of some massage chair company. I looked at the woman and wondered what it was like for her to sit until nighttime at a computer in an empty room. I didn’t count her as beautiful face number 25 or 26. Instead I took Maggie across the street to the Jin Fong Restaurant.

Maggie stirred in my arms when we reached the lobby and I set her down. The woman was there at her podium, alone, reading a Chinese book. She looked up and smiled when I motioned that I wanted to take Maggie up the escalator, as usual. This time, though, she stepped over to us.

“I have to ask you, what are your names?”

I picked Maggie up to the level of the woman’s face, and told her our names and she told us hers, looking at Maggie all the while.

“Karen,” I said.

“Carrie,” she corrected.

“Oh. Nice,” I said. She beamed at Maggie.

The escalator stretched high to the enormous restaurant’s top floor. On the walls were marble etchings and above us was a chandelier. Maggie reached for the marble and I let her touch but kept her away from the railing. “Up, up, up-up-up,” I crooned while she looked directly up at the lights of the chandelier.

At the top, the seaters held menus but I waved them off with a smile, and we turned and floated “down, down-down-down, down” (I sang to Maggie). I saw part of Carrie below, seated at her podium, one bare leg extended through her full-length split dress. I took a deep breath and smiled to myself about her beauty and wondered at her whole life. I wished I was more people and could be many places at once and could live many lives, and I stopped singing to Maggie. She turned to look back at the escalator when we reached bottom, so I gave Carrie an apologetic glance and we headed up again. I sang the up-down song all the way, and gazed at Carrie’s extended leg, wondering again at its beauty. Then I felt a pang, wanting to get back home to Laurie and imagining her still sorting clothes and pouting about leaving Chinatown.

At ground floor again, Carrie came over to us.

“Is she Chinese too?”

“Yes,” I said. “My wife’s Chinese.”

“She’s beautiful.” She touched Maggie’s cheek. “How old is she?”

“Almost a year and a half.”

“She … is so beautiful,” Carrie said slowly. “A mix is so beautiful.” Then she laughed. “You know what I mean. Sorry.”

“I know,” I said. “She loves this escalator … and the horse sculpture up there.” I pointed to the wall.

“She can touch it.”

We went to the heavy large horse sculpture hanging high on the wall, and I lifted Maggie so she could touch the horse’s leg. Then I set her down.

“We walk every night after dinner,” I told Carrie. “This is usually our last stop.”

“She’s beautiful,” Carrie repeated.

“See you tomorrow, then. Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” she said, and looked down at Maggie who clasped my hand.

* * *

Around the corner on Mott Street I bought a bubble iced tea and walked along, sipping. Maggie, in my left arm, eyed the extra-large straw that made room for the black rubbery pearl that slid up and into my mouth. I let her take a sip but made sure the straw wasn’t near any of the pearls.

I started to count beauties again on Mott Street, but stopped immediately and thought of Laurie at home—the most beautiful of all and always—whom I’d met after giving up, at thirty-five, on ever finding the only woman for me. She was it, and I remembered knowing for sure when I met her at the art show I'd slipped into off the street during a sudden rainstorm.

Up in Westchester or Yonkers, or wherever we moved, she wouldn’t have her many friends and neighbors, or her parents and aunts and uncles, and I wouldn’t have Elizabeth Street and every other Chinatown street to roam. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to secretly count any more beautiful faces, hidden as they’d be behind suburban doors or the steering wheels of SUVs in Westchester.

Back on the corner of Bayard and Elizabeth streets, Maggie struggled down and pulled me onto Elizabeth. “Fish,” she said.

It was getting dark. The hobby horse was inside the drug store, and all the gates were down. After that, across from the Chinese mall, was a small Chinese restaurant. A large fish tank was in its window. Maggie pulled me all the way to it, and I squatted next to her. “Fish,” I said, and kissed her head. “Fish, honey.”

She traced with her finger along a slowly passing frowning silver fish. I smiled and looked around.

Across the street, near the precinct, was Carrie, standing on the sidewalk, apparently on a break and smoking a cigarette. She seemed to be brooding at us. I looked back to the fish tank and pointed to the long serious fish again, and Maggie slapped the flat of her hand against the glass. I laughed and looked over to Carrie. She had dropped her cigarette and was stepping on it deliberately, in slow motion. She frowned down at her twisting foot.

* * *

Moo-Moo, our neighbor from down the hall, boomed Maggie’s name from across the still-packed Catherine Street. I stopped, still holding Maggie, and watched her cross excitedly. Moo-Moo often popped over to our apartment any old time, and we went to her place almost every night. Laurie talked with her rapidly in Cantonese while I sat and read or played with Maggie. She had two junior-high-school-aged kids, one boy and one girl, and her husband was a nice man who—like Moo-Moo—didn’t know much English and loved to read his Chinese newspaper in his favorite soft chair.

Now Moo-Moo shouted, “Ma—gie!” as she crossed the street, and then “Mag-Mag!” as she got closer, and then she took Maggie from me and planted kiss after kiss on her cheeks and blew raspberries into her neck. “Mag-Mag,” she sang, and talked wildly to her in Cantonese.

Moo-Moo swung Maggie high in her arms, and I watched her face, her round freckled smiling face, and remembered Carrie’s beautiful brooding one. Across the street the steam rose from the sidewalk, and garbage bags were piled recklessly against the curb.

“Mommy home?” Moo-Moo stopped to say to me.

“Yes, we’ll see you later.”

Catherine Street, darker and quieter away from the Chinatown side, stretched all the way to the East River, but Maggie and I turned onto Monroe and then went through the big gate, Maggie gripping my fingers and walking ahead of me. The security guard—a different one—glanced at us from his booth post as we approached. He didn’t look up again, even though it took us a long time to pass him into the courtyard.


Lou Gaglia’s Comments

I could easily throw away an old spoon, or toss a favorite t-shirt without a thought after drinking from a dribble cup, but certain places get me all gooey. Some places stick in my mind, and so do moments and people associated with those places. I love them the way I love old friends, and no one can say a bad word against them or I get steamed. This story started and ended with a place that has stuck in my mind for many years, and I groped a long time for a way to write it into a story. When it finally occurred to me, I wouldn’t leave it alone until I wrote it—out of loyalty.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 42 | Fall 2013