Olivia was folding napkins when his voice snaked up through the floor.
Would you rather wear the hood or sit on the dildo?
That was a question Henry had never asked.
She wasn’t trying to listen but the laundry room was directly above his studio. Sound traveled freely between the building’s hundred-year-old beams, the price they’d paid for industrial charm. She pressed down on the damp cloth with the flat of her hand. Which would she choose? Sitting on a dildo sounded painful. Then again, the hood could be claustrophobic.
The professors upstairs said the pornographer gave the place its edge. “It’s frisson dangereux,” as Alfonso put it, working out the cork in the bottle of Veuve Clicquot they’d brought to welcome Henry and Olivia to the handsome limestone on Broome Street. “This was a cigar factory during Prohibition,” Wolfgang explained. “One rang the second-floor bell, put money in a basket lowered down from the office and voilà! Bootleg whiskey. We think of Vinnie and Candy as the building living up to its past sins.” Olivia imagined this was a story the professors told green freshmen from Paducah and Sioux Falls.
In time, Olivia and Henry would be among the guests watching tango dancers glide across Wolfgang and Alfonso’s pickled floors as college students in black trousers served poached salmon to soft-spoken men who adored the opera. They’d hit the neighbor lottery.
Upstairs, that is.
Downstairs, a gagging cloud of patchouli seeped up between the boards. The deeply insinuating bass of Barry White added an illicit growl to the proceedings, producing in Olivia a strange nostalgia for heavy lidded boys in studded jeans, for delicious necking in the dim corners of long gone dance palaces.
The pornographer’s wife had hair the red metal flake of a ’57 Buick. The day their furniture arrived, she slouched against her front door as if to invite comparison with the bare-breasted woman sucking toes in the photograph over the peephole. “I’m Candy Palumbo,” she said. “You must be the new people.”
Henry tried not to gape.
Olivia extended her hand. “We’re the Greys. Olivia and Henry. Our kids are at college now and we thought we’d come back to the city while our bladders are still able to make it through a two-act play.”
Ignoring Olivia, Candy tilted a hip and shot Henry a lascivious look. “Vinnie and I are sensualists. What do you do?”
He went blank.
“He does a bit of everything,” Olivia said. “Buying, selling and restoring antiques, some design work.” This was shorthand for nothing, really. In his Barrow Street shop, he moved things around, kept busy basically. She wasn’t going to tell a stranger he’d been trying to remember what he did for years. Or that he didn’t respond well to provocation. Since the surgery, answering for him, especially when he felt pressure, was automatic. She couldn’t be bothered with those who thought this was overbearing. “I write,” she added, despite an obvious lack of interest. “Some fiction and the odd magazine article.”
Candy was attractive in a slutty sort of way, pants too tight, sweater cut low, breasts too perky to be authentic. Fine lines and a fading slash behind her ears said she was no baby. All the same, she appeared to have held up well under the X-rated circumstances. Her head bobbed slightly as she spoke; she drew a finger over her gums. The word cocaine formed in a remote corner of Olivia’s brain.
Henry gave the movers a sharp look as they hoisted their Balinese Buddha past the salacious front door and into the padded elevator. With a practiced Stamford smile, Olivia said, “You and Vinnie must come up for a drink when we’re settled.”
What in the world would she serve a professional sensualist—absinthe?
The cartons were emptied and the detritus of their years in Connecticut was divided and shipped to their grown children, Ada and Jack. Brain surgery may have short-circuited Henry’s memory and seriously downsized his business, but it had not dimmed his eye for design. For the first time in their cluttered lives, Olivia and Henry had room to breathe. Buoyed by being downtown again, they arranged old friends around their long refectory table, set in a pool of light from massive cast iron windows—a reward of sorts for having run the toe-sucking gauntlet.
“Interesting picture in the lobby,” Anna said, passing a platter of grilled figs. “I can’t imagine why anyone would put a thing like that on their front door.”
Henry refilled Anna’s wine glass and pretended to sound blasé. “It’s hard to see her face with that foot in her mouth, but that’s Candy Palumbo, our downstairs neighbor.”
“When we came in tonight, we saw a kid coming out of that apartment,” said Anna’s husband Earl, a sculptor working with found objects. “She couldn’t be more than fourteen.”
“That’s the daughter, Cookie,” Olivia said. “There’s a younger brother, too.”
Magda gave a short laugh as she passed the focaccia.
“Cookie? Candy? Are they all named for desserts?”
Anna winced. “At that age, I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents having sex, much less coming home from school every day through a door with a picture of my naked mother on it.”
“Isn’t that how we all got here in the first place?” Olivia said. “Through the door of a naked woman?”
At this, Magda’s husband, Hector, a moody psychiatrist with relationship issues, leaned into the conversation. “The symbolism is primitive, but the analogy apt.” Hector was a bit of a jerk, if you asked Olivia, but no one did, so she smiled sweetly and passed the frisée.
A spot of cadmium yellow clung to Anna’s sleeve from her own day’s painting and Earl absently rubbed it, a tender gesture that stirred a prickle of envy. In the time before, work was a secret she and Henry held close.
Earl would not be put off.
“Seriously, Olivia, do you approve of doing that in front of kids?”
“I’m sure they stop working when the children come home.” She realized how defensive she sounded, but they were her neighbors after all, regardless of what they did for a living.
Magda chuckled. “I can see them now. Scrambling to put away their whips and chains before school lets out. Interesting role reversal, don’t you think?”
“Not easy to rebel when your parents perform sex acts in the living room,” Hector added.
“Analysis aside,” Luke said, glowering at Hector. “I think it’s disgusting.”
Henry had been listening quietly to the discussion and now he gave his guests a bemused smile. They were used to his silences and rushed speech, the altered cadences of a mucked-up brain. “People like that…not my cup of tea… give…give the city its edge. I like rubbing elbows with all that. I missed… missed it in Connecticut with its cocktail parties and church Sundays.” He swept an arm over their island of candlelight and food. “I like…like…the mess of this…being shocked, shocked into my opinions.”
As if surprised by the suddenness of his views, Henry sat back abruptly and offered the decanter, a solicitous host once more. The conversation moved on to other topics, but not before Olivia realized, not altogether happily, that he hadn’t appreciated the quiet life she gave him; a life she never wanted for herself.
In truth, Olivia didn’t know what to think of the Palumbos. The kids seemed well adjusted enough. They took out the garbage, walked the dog, and ran a hose over their parents’ Subaru with its license plate, Sex Toy. If damage was being done, she couldn’t see it. Censorship was far more dangerous. Never mind that she found that sort of thing distasteful, she would defend their right to make what they said was art, but Mapplethorpe aside, wasn’t really.
Every morning, a pasty-faced assistant, sun glinting off the silver stud in her nose, rang the buzzer marked Studio. Was she in charge of getting the models drunk enough to do the things they did for the camera? A mountain of empty wine and tequila bottles in the recycling bin seemed to confirm this. Or maybe Vinnie needed the liquor to loosen him up as he zoomed in on a penis, alert and looking for fame.
Said member belonged to an ordinary man with hair the color of weak tea, who chained his bicycle to the No Parking sign out front. Olivia knew this because she had peeked at one of Vinnie’s books on a remainder table. Amazing how average a porn king can look in the flesh. Palumbo, too, was a nondescript man. On the short side with watery blue eyes and a mop of dirty brown hair framing a face unworthy of a second glance on the subway. It was easy to imagine an Italian mother in Queens cutting ravioli dough with a whiskey glass and wondering where she went wrong.
“We’re erotic artists,” he declared one day as they gathered their mail. She resisted the urge to ask how this was different from being a professional sensualist.
In the lobby, signing for a package one morning, Olivia found Vinnie and his son slipping shrink-wrapped books into Fedex pouches. The boy, in baggy sweats, bit his lip as he concentrated on the task. How a ten-year-old, whipsawed by nascent hormones, was able to negotiate the sexually charged atmosphere of that household was hard to fathom.
His father cuffed him on the shoulder. “Sunny, say hello to Mrs. Grey.”
The kid mumbled something unintelligible, avoiding eye contact.
“That’s Sunny with a U,” Vinnie said, giving him a playful punch. “It’s short for Sunday.”
Olivia had zero interest in knowing why the Palumbos would name a child after a day of the week. Judging from the way Sunny winced and hunkered down on the steps, he didn’t either. His eyes were the same vapid blue as his father’s. Hard to tell if their flatness was studied cool or the evidence of a dull mind. She wondered if his inability to meet her gaze had something to do with the anatomical horrors Alfonso and Wolfgang described hanging in his parents’ apartment.
On the cover of each book, a man wore stiletto heels, a cloche, and nothing else. His legs were shapely, albeit a touch furry for her taste. The effect of seeing multiple images of her neighbor under his transparent wrapping was that of mild seasickness.
“How clever of you to shrink-wrap these,” she said. “To keep minors from browsing, I presume?”
Oblivious to the barb, Vinnie tapped one of the books.
“You know what they say…”
“Actually, I don’t.”
Did he realize a child was present; that his child was present?
In February, Olivia was standing at the window, stretching the kinks out of her neck, when she spotted Cookie Palumbo leaning against a parked car crying. In her pink parka, arms hugging a skinny chest, she looked more like a little girl than the tough teenager she and Henry saw darting in and out of the building. Letting in a blast of arctic air, Olivia opened the window and called down to her.
“Are you okay?”
Red-faced and puffy, Cookie squinted up.
Olivia had to shout over the blare of traffic.
“In that case, come up. You’ll freeze to death out there.”
Absurd daytime disruptions had become a fact of life. Arguments over “party favors” and lighting problems associated with tumescence leaked into the Greys’ apartment. One night, a disturbing conversation insinuated itself over the sound machine they’d installed in the bedroom.
“I’m going commando,” Vinnie announced over Henry’s snores and the gentle lapping of Caribbean waves.
Olivia pictured camouflage face paint, grenades slung from a belt, night goggles, a knife tucked into a boot.
“Isn’t it a little cold for that?” Candy asked, the acid in her tone evident a full floor away.
“It feels sexier, more spontaneous,” Vinnie told his wife. “I like not having to remember where I left my briefs.”
Had she expected fidelity in a pornographer? Had Henry ever gone out without his underpants?
“You can stick your spontaneity and your underwear up your ass for all I care,” Candy yelled.
“You’re just jealous because I’m into my work,” Vinnie shot back.
“You’re a little too goddamn into your work. And if you touch that girl again, I’ll break your face. You got that, commando man?”
Was he referring to the naked girl draped over the handrail on the back staircase when Olivia put out the garbage that afternoon? “Too cold on the roof,” said an unapologetic Vinnie, leaving Olivia to ponder the definition of common areas in their condo agreement. Perhaps Candy was mad at him for warming up this Valkyrie who’d rung her bell by mistake and whispered “Vinnoooshska” in a husky Slavic voice.
It wasn’t until Olivia invited a tearful Cookie Palumbo upstairs that she allowed herself to consider the word girl.
Cookie stood at the door in tight, low-slung jeans and a tiny T-shirt. Slutty like her mother, Olivia was ashamed of thinking. She poured the girl a cup of cocoa, put a few gingersnaps on a plate, and took the stool opposite. Nudging the plate closer to her young guest: “What could be so bad that you’d be out in the cold crying yourself silly?”
“My parents are going to hell.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they won’t embrace Jesus, who forgives all sins, including fornication.”
“Well, they don’t really fornicate, do they? Aren’t they just pretending for the camera?”
“Taking pictures of fornication is the same thing.”
“Don’t actors pretend to do things not in their nature for the sake of their art?”
“There’s a picture of my mother in the living room licking a big leather dildo. You call that pretending?”
“Not my idea of hygienic,” Olivia said, aiming for levity.
A girly pink phone shimmied on the counter. Cookie ignored it.
“Try saying no to a boy with that on the wall. Gross.”
It was gross and Olivia had no business making light of it. If she and Henry could hear the gory details of the Palumbo’s private lives in their own bedroom, God knows what that poor kid had seen and heard.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Your parents’ work must be difficult to live with.” She resisted the impulse to add, “especially at your age.”
Cookie sipped her cocoa. Olivia’s thoughts wandered to Ada at fourteen; innocent one day, budding sexpot the next, as prickly and unpredictable as climate change. Eager to trumpet some adolescent triumph, she strode into Olivia and Henry’s bedroom and caught them in the act. Naked and in a position no parents should be, they’d grabbed for the covers as poor Ada dove for the door. At breakfast, Ada ate her eggs in silence. His face an incendiary shade of red, Henry pointed out the necessity of knocking on doors. Olivia rattled on about boundaries and adult relationships.
“No big deal,” Ada had said, but anyone with eyes could see that it was.
Cookie nibbled at the edges of a gingersnap. “I should run away. But if I do, who’ll save them?”
“Maybe they’ll save themselves,” Olivia offered.
The poor thing was too young to know that all the love in the world couldn’t save someone who didn’t want to be saved.
“Duh. My father handcuffs his models to the refrigerator and my mother lets him pee on her. Do you think they’re going to heaven?”
The kid had a point.
“You’ll never guess who was here this afternoon.”
Henry put down his magazine. “I guess you’re going to tell me.”
“The pornographer’s kid?”
“One and the same. It seems her parents are going to hell. Alfonso wasn’t kidding. There really are pornographic family pictures in that apartment.”
“Well, Dorothy…I guess we’re not…not in Kansas anymore.”
“You think that’s funny?”
“C’mon, you know how dramatic teenagers can be.”
It had occurred to her that Cookie might be making it up to get attention; something Hector would call ‘adolescent individuation.’ Ada had certainly demonized them at one point, so had her brother Jack. Still, the evidence on the front door was unassailable.
“Maybe so, but what kind of mother lets a fourteen-year-old tattoo Baby Doll on her bum?”
“After she showed you her bum, did you show her yours?”
“Her pants were practically falling off! Then she bent down to pick up her gingersnap.”
“Cookie dropped her cookie?”
“Can’t you ever be serious?”
“I am being serious,” Henry said. “This isn’t…isn’t Stanford. It’s…it’s Bohemia…ground zero for weirdness. Isn’t that why we came back?”
Most days, Cookie arrived at four and stayed until suppertime. She talked of being a missionary in India and in a parallel universe, dreamed of dancing on Broadway, bragging her father knew someone who could get her an audition at Julliard. Always, the conversation came back to her parents’ one-way ticket to hell.
Olivia was rolling out a pie crust when Cookie opened her backpack and slapped several torn photographs of her naked mother onto the counter, creating a kaleidoscope of skin and curls of dough. She held up a sliver of her mother’s nipple. “A kid was selling these. He said they go through our garbage.”
Olivia swept them away.
“They’re only body parts, sweetie. Real love is in here.”
This was worse than useless, but she didn’t know what else to say.
In March, Cookie refused to go to school. All day, she stood on the front stoop or leaned against a parked car. On his third pass, a cop in a cruiser slowed down and told her to move along. Defiant, she told him she had a right to be in front of her own house.
Minutes later, Vinnie took the steps three at a time, his mouth a thin, ugly line. “I’m giving you one minute to get in here.”
The barest tremble in her shoulders betrayed her fear.
He loomed over her, fists clenched.
Watching from above, Olivia was about to call the police when Vinnie backed off and slunk into the house. Cookie, silent and unblinking, did not follow him inside.
Candy appeared, shivering in a thin blouse and mini skirt.
“How could you do this?”
“How could you?”
She slapped her daughter hard. A patch of crimson bloomed on Cookie’s cheek, but still she wouldn’t come in.
Olivia watched with a mixture of admiration and fear. Sooner or later, she had to stop playing it safe. It was another frigid day. She heated a mug of chicken noodle soup, brought it downstairs, and handed it to her young friend.
“Even Gandhi kept up his strength.”
A few hours later, Henry pulled up in a taxi just as Vinnie was giving Cookie a violent shaking. “If you don’t get into this house right now, you’ll be sorry you were born.”
Henry bounded out of the cab.
“Let go of her!”
Vinnie spun around and pushed him away.
“You want to keep out of this.”
Henry did not back down.
Vinnie’s face was inches from his.
“And you want to keep…keep your hands off that kid.”
Neither man moved. Nothing short of a punch would end this.
Vinnie, perhaps thinking twice about adding assault to his long list of sins, stalked back into the building and slammed the door.
Upstairs, Henry shrugged off his jacket, tossed it on a chair, and paced. Adrenalin and electricity came off him in waves. “Did you see that…that cretin? He wanted to hit me.” He stopped outside the laundry room to listen for any threats from below, fingers fluttering up to the pearly scar on his left temple. After the surgery, a sleepy resident swabbed the incision and told Henry, “When this baby heals, you’re going to be one hard-headed mother.”
“Would have served him right if he broke his hand,” Henry said, still pacing. “Forget what I said about…not getting involved. He’s going to hurt…hurt that child.”
Olivia waited for him to settle and drew him close. This was the man she preferred, not the one who needed to be shocked into his opinions.
The next day, Candy confronted Olivia in the lobby.
“This is your doing.”
Olivia tipped her head in the direction of the pornographic front door.
“I would say it’s yours.”
“You need to mind your own business,” Candy growled.
“How do you suggest I do that when yours is so prominently displayed? Doesn’t it matter that your daughter is humiliated by what you do?”
“You think it’s that simple, don’t you?
“I’m afraid I do.”
It was that simple. Choices have consequences. Even in Bohemia.
Candy edged uncomfortably close. “Vinnie knows people,” she said. “People who enjoy their work.”
Two days later, Cookie gave up and went back to school, and Vinnie was back to photographing naked Slovenians on the back stairs. Her after-school visits with Olivia resumed with no explanation or regard for the difficulties of the adults. Olivia no longer wondered how children were beaten, starved, and sexually abused in plain sight. It wasn’t in her to say touched or fondled. “Has your father ever hurt you?”
“He’s got my mother and his whore models for that.”
“What made you go back to school? Did they threaten you?”
“I prayed about it and decided to forgive them. That’s what Jesus would have done.”
“You are an amazing girl, Cookie Palumbo. Do know that?”
“I suppose,” she said, breaking into a rare smile.
In April, Olivia and Magda met for lunch. Fortified with omelets and two glasses of Pinot, they set out for the galleries below Canal to examine apocalyptic Barbie dolls, dead rats in a handbag, and a series of all-black paintings on an equally inky wall. Wonky from the wine, Magda struck a pose in front of a murky canvas. In her standard black uniform, she was nothing but red lipstick and green eyes in the gloom. Olivia sneaked a photo to post. A few doors down, an exhibition of nudes offered welcome realism. There were bodies bathing, reclining, standing; an entire naked family sat on a tractor. Blood or gasoline leaked darkly onto the pavement.
“How refreshing,” Magda declared. “Art we can recognize.”
Taking a slow turn in the gallery, Olivia was drawn to a lean male nude with upraised arms. Next to it, a large silver gelatin print entitled Nest Egg seemed out of place in the roomful of paintings. At first glance, the central black and white image seemed like a nest. But upon closer inspection, flattened moons of buttocks framed, to put it as delicately as possible, an anal orifice photoshopped into an ovate shape. What appeared to be straw and twigs surrounding the egg was pubic hair.
Magda squinted at it through fuchsia trifocals. “It’s clever in a sordid way.”
“What kind of sick mind dreams up something like this?” Olivia asked.
Turning to the artist’s statement, two words stopped her cold. Vincent Palumbo.
She looked closer. Dark slashes, barely visible, two ll’s and part of an o were all that survived the cropping. And suddenly there was Cookie bending to pick up her ginger snap, her girlish and slightly flat bottom peeking out from low cut pants, Baby Doll tattooed on her creamy, unblemished skin. How long did she have to bend over while he made her humiliation complete? Was this how they would pay for Julliard? Olivia needed to sit down.
“My God, Magda, that’s Cookie!”
It was tempting to make a scene, but she thought better of it. She would call Henry and they would go to the police together. How would they make it clear to people who cataloged sins against children in more obvious ways than this, that they needed to get over to the corner of Broome and West Broadway immediately? Harder still was her own culpability. How could she have listened to Cookie and not intervened? She steadied herself and waited for Henry to arrive. He studied the image for a long time, a muscle in his cheek betraying the depth of his disgust.
“This will get ugly,” Magda warned before disappearing into a cab. “Are you sure you want to get involved?”
“I think we already are,” Olivia told her.
At the First Precinct, a detective took down their story at a desk redolent of a half-eaten Danish.
Olivia braced herself for Cookie’s wrath. She would make her understand.
“How could you,” she would accuse.
“How could I not?” Olivia would say.
But there would be no time to explain. In New York State, any hint, rumor, suggestion, suspicion, whiff, whisper, innuendo, insinuation, or intimation of abuse— sexual, physical or otherwise—required the instant removal of minor children from the home. Teachers, social workers, police officers, and judges, considered legal surrogates, faced prosecution if they did not act swiftly. The system no longer needed the Greys. There was no going back.
“My wife is Cookie’s friend,” Henry told the detective.
“I don’t want her to be frightened,” Olivia said.
“We’ll do our best,” the detective promised, escorting them out.
Early the next morning, two uniformed officers and a social worker pressed the Palumbo’s doorbell with its damning photograph and presented Candy, more asleep than awake, with a court order. At first, the gravity of the situation did not register. She held the paper limply as if refusing a package. Respectful, but firm in tone, a woman from Child Welfare insisted she be given access to the children.
Candy roared to life, howling and clawing.
One of the cops pinned her arms behind her.
Cookie and Sunny came to the door.
“Leave my mother alone,” screamed the boy, punching at the officer.
Cookie’s eyes were peeled back to the whites.
Bags packed hastily, coats thrown over their pajamas, the children were bundled into a police cruiser.
Blind with fury, bathrobe billowing out behind her, Candy ran into the street after the squad car. A taxi swerved and slammed on its brakes. She went down hard. Sprawled on the pavement, robe open and twisted to one side, her blood red hair stood straight up on her head. Oblivious to the nasty gash on her leg, she raged and cursed the receding cruiser, keening piteously. Collapsing into herself, Candy leaned forward to catch a ragged breath and reached for an ankle, most likely sprained in the fall; a motion that caused her pajama bottom to slide down. The words Baby Doll snaked across the rise of an exposed buttock.
Olivia felt her chest constrict. What had she done?
It happened quickly after that. Men in jeans, windbreakers, and IDs dangling from cords, carried out books, computers, thumb drives, and family albums. They removed large framed black and white photographs, each one lewder than the next. As they were hoisted into a waiting van, Olivia felt a mother’s need to cover them up. Vinnie Palumbo was led away in cuffs. A plainclothes cop, putting a none-too-gentle hand on Vinnie’s head, ducked him into the back of an unmarked car. Just before the door slammed, Vinnie found Olivia and Henry in the knot of onlookers and leveled a look of such malevolence they would remember it for the rest of their lives.
They never saw Candy or the children again.
Candy had said Vinnie knew people, people who “enjoyed their work.” For a long time, they glanced over their shoulders, especially when strolling back from Anna and Earl’s on a warm night, or from some little bistro on the Bowery. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Henry would warn whenever she went out alone.
Rumors flew. Alfonso heard that Candy divorced Vinnie after his sentencing and married a New Jersey wise guy. Another theory put her in Belleview after a meth overdose. Either way, Olivia lived with the harm she’d done. She consoled herself with the notion that even if the model for that grotesque photograph had been Candy, and not Cookie, a childhood like that is never without its cost. Olivia was a mother herself; she did not expect to be thanked.
In time, a notice of a sheriff’s sale appeared on the padlocked studio downstairs. Henry suggested they bid on it and rent it out to people less unsavory. Chastened by a new understanding of how close against the city’s cheek malevolence could live, Olivia agreed.
There are newlyweds downstairs now—Ava, a clothing designer, and Kareem, a classical guitarist. Arpeggios and glissandos slither up through the wide plank floors, sounds that soothe, rather than disturb. Some days, Olivia is tempted to shout “Bravo!” at an especially spirited riff, but resists the impulse. She’s learned distance can be neighborly. She never deliberately listens, but when she hears the occasional Where’s my blue shirt? or Must we invite your parents?, it’s a relief knowing it’s nothing more than the push and shove of a marriage settling in. Banal and blameless.
She’ll never speak of what she’s seen. What has she seen? She doesn’t know herself. But those nights she can’t sleep, with only Henry’s gentle snoring and the creak and settle of the building to break the silence, there is always Cookie, her skinny arms on the kitchen counter. Part child, part oracle, furious, and forgiving.
by Jax Peters Lowell
Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize