Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Bard High School Early College Queens, Long Is City, NY
Educator: Ezra Nielsen
Category: Short Story
Lexington & Avenue A
The foyer of the Vassards’ apartment was uncomfortably tedious, built to impress, and Wren couldn’t help but think that the pile of books that were strategically placed on one of the velvet chair cushions hadn’t been touched in years. She’d been in the apartment a few times before, but never on her own accord, and never had she opened the door herself. The living room was empty and looked as unnaturally lived in as a museum exhibition she’d seen at the Metropolitan. All it lacked was a crowd, people clad in tweed and wiry glasses trodding delicately around the paintings. Wren looked around, feeling suddenly intrusive, for one’s private apartment was, inherently, less public of an affair than an exhibit. She was welcome, of course, as James had been sure to remind her just the previous Friday. That evening, before she left the office, a polished silver key had been placed on her desk with a note, the writing of which, Wren had noticed, was incredibly large and in royal blue pen. She took that same key out of the heavy metal door, struggling slightly to pull it from the lock, before closing it shut and bolting it, the muscle memory built from closing the door to her own microscopic apartment but never to anyone else’s and certainly not to James and Meredith’s. She smoothed the thin cloth of her skirt and gave her tights a check for runs before walking into the living room. She was familiar enough with the space to sit herself on the navy blue sofa but not brave enough to open any of the books or French magazines on the coffee table. She kept her back straight and took her own small book from her purse, opening to a random page and skimming as she waited.
A sudden, muffled thud came from another part of the apartment, and Wren, startled, looked up, unaware anyone but herself had been there. A male voice shouted “Will? That you?” Wren closed her book as quickly as she’d opened it. Heavy footsteps cascaded down the staircase and a young(ish) man came crashing into the living room in pajamas, no slippers. Wren had never seen anyone look so casual in the presence of velvet furniture and expensive wall art, and the sight of it was something out of a Neil Simon comedy.
“You’re not Will,” he said matter of factly.
“I am not.” She looked around again, unsure of what to do. “Should I be? Where’s James? And Meredith? I was sure they said six o’ clock.”
He shrugged, reaching a narrow arm up to scratch the back of his head. “You’re probably fine. They might be running late, busy fucking beavers and all that.” He yawned and reached into the breast pocket of his pajama top as he moved towards the window. He dug around the pocket a bit more with his thumb and index finger before pulling out a folded piece of paper. Wren expected him to open it, but he didn’t, instead just rubbed it between his fingers over and over. With the other hand he reached behind her and pulled the curtains apart, one after the other. The sky was a light grey, and though Wren had seen it just moments before as she walked to the building, she looked out inquisitively. She needed something to pretend to be intrigued by, attempting to match the young man’s adaptability.
“You seen Barefoot in the Park yet? Or read it?” He was still fumbling with the paper.
“I’ve read it. Haven’t seen. Why, have you? Done either, I mean.”
“Seen, not read.” He plopped himself down comfortably on the couch, his posture far more clumsy and careless than hers. “Been tryna get Will to see it for weeks, he’s refused. Never been a Redford fan, apparently, which in my own, humble opinion is a goddamn pathetic reason not to see a film. He loved the play so I said to him, I’m sure you’ll at least enjoy the reimagining, especially since Redford was the original casting for Paul, so it’ll hardly be any different, but he insisted that reading a play is a very different experience than watching one. He only does the former, pretentious prick. It took days.”
“Did he finally agree?”
“Yes, we’re seeing it tonight. Promised the Jaguar we wouldn’t be at his apartment by the time he got here, which, by the looks of it, he’s doing a better job of ensuring than we are. Well,” he said, looking down at his pajamas, “than I am, in any case. Will’s being a good chap.”
“What’s your name? How do you know James and Meredith?” Wren asked, still looking out the window at the people crowding the sidewalk below.
“Mike. Mike Farrow’s the name. Met the Jaguar at a bar few years back, the Lynx was with him. We’ve become good friends, more or less, and it seems to me that they’re under the impression they’ve taken me under their wing.” He made a flapping gesture with his left arm. “And who are you?”
“Wren. I’m Mr. Vassard’s receptionist.”
His look of recognition startled her, and made her feel strangely guilty. She spent quite a bit of time with James and had never heard of a Mike Farrow. “You’re Miss Lance?”
“I am! I’m surprised you know the name.”
“I do indeed. The Jaguar says only the best of things.”
“That’s encouraging.” She looked away from the window and gave him a courteous smile.
“Hopefully so.” Mike fumbled around his pocket again and found a cigarette that had already been partially burned. “Pass me the matches, will ya?”
Wren looked to where his hand was lazily gesturing, and after searching for a small while too long her eyes landed on a small periwinkle matchbook. She reached, leaning forward, and sheepishly handed it to him. She would have been embarrassed at how long she had taken to find it had he been paying more attention, but, she noticed thankfully, his eyes stayed on the cigarette with boyish inquisition, his jaw slack and mouth ajar. She held it out to him, clutching it between two slender fingers. Mike scowled at the cigarette as if to say you win this time before finally taking it from her. Wren looked at the cover of the book as he ripped a match from it and began to strike. BAR LOUIE was printed in dark black letters on an otherwise serene backdrop.
Mike turned it over and laughed, a hoarse, garrulous sound. “This was the bar!” he said triumphantly. “Right on Lexington and Avenue A.”
“Those are two very different, very separate avenues.” Wren cleared her throat, startled by her own bluntness.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s one of the two, anyway.”
“Avenue A, I believe I’ve walked by it a few times. Is it any good?”
“Magnificent!” He blew a dramatically thin stream of smoke from between pursed lips. “Truffle Mac and Cheese has never tasted so goddamn delicious.”
“I suppose I’ll have to go!” Wren was turned to him now, realizing graciously that any insecurities she may previously have had through the conversation were alleviated by Mr. Farrow’s lack of care for his own behavior as well as for hers. She released the tension in her shoulders, rolling them back a few times, and allowed her back to rest on the sofa cushions.
“You shall indeed. It’s quite the spectacle, comedians and bohemians and the occasional Russian spy. Three-martini lunches, that’s the culture of that place.”
Wren frowned. “Three-martini lunches aren’t usually associated with, you know, the artistic scene. That’s Schiller’s you’re thinking of. With lawyers and such.”
Mike frowned at his cigarette. “That doesn’t sound right.”
“It is to my knowledge. It has something to do with tax deductions.”
He sighed. “Your knowledge is better than mine.” He took another drag, holding it in before exhaling climatically. “My knowledge, so to speak, is fluctuating. It never stays fixed.” Wren looked at him inquisitively, just before he spun to face her and his voice quickened. “Just like my attention span. Forgive me for this – morality.” She expected a follow up, something to clarify his intention behind the word, but he sat, wide eyed, and blinked. She furrowed her brow and processed what he had said.
“Morality?” she asked.
“Okay. Morality. And what about it?”
“Everything about it! What is it, can we prove it exists, I mean, can we take one idea of morality, one goddamn sacred code, and apply it to everyone in a community?”
Wren realized with a start that Mike’s demeanor had changed entirely in the span of a few seconds. His indifference having solidified itself into poised intent, his cigarette glowing with the anticipation of unanswered questions.
She spoke finally.
“I’m not sure how to answer that. I’m not even sure there are answers.”
Mike didn’t shift his gaze, and Wren began to move uncomfortably in her seat. His voice had taken on a new ferocity. “Well I certainly don’t know. Evolutionary stability, that’s what Will keeps insisting. But that’s too simple, don’t you think?”
She thought for a minute. She could very well concede and tell the truth, which is that she doesn’t know what she thinks, but the more she thought about it the more she realized Mike was unlikely to accept that as an answer, so the best she could do was ask another question until she could articulate something more concrete than a low-voiced I don’t know.
“What specifically do you mean by evolutionarily stable?”
A twitch in his upper lip and narrowing of the eyes indicated that he was pleased with the question, something he could engage with, and Wren felt a small twinge of pride in her chest at having earned a genuine, if small, reaction.
“Will has this whole theory, you see. That if you take a random community of people,” he hovered his hand in a circular motion over the floor, gesturing to an invisible crowd, “and they all, in their own, individual consciousnesses, apply moral rules that they will only act or say or do what makes sense for evolutionary progression and consistency, that that is true, functioning morality.”
Wren looked down for a moment, thinking. “But is that feasible? Aligning communal consciousness… that’s certainly easier said than done.” She thought a moment longer. “Are these people who have to have grown with the same conditions? Or any random group of people from the streets? Either way it seems, to me at least, a bit overzealous.”
Mike dragged on the cigarette lazily. “Can’t disagree with you there.”
He looked towards her again. “What about me?”
She spoke softly, staring at a book on the coffee table to avoid his gaze. “What do you believe?”
“I don’t know if it’s what I believe, so much as what I observe.” The cigarette’s glow became significantly weaker. “And what I observe is every person coming up with values, rules for themselves, and then breaking those rules, whether they mean to or not.” He paused. “Then they have breakdowns. They blame themselves or other people or God. Some turn it into art, you know. They write or they sing or they act. Those people will all be dead by ‘68, curse their souls.”
Wren’s breathing quickened. Her head stung, a thin rim of tension building beneath her skin. Mike looked somber and stoic, in a way she hadn’t thought possible. Perhaps he was angry with someone, or himself, or God. The end of the cigarette faded, going dark, and Mike subsequently excused himself and walked out.
She sat in silence for a moment or two, thinking. What were her values? Had she broken them? Had Mike broken his? It was an interesting thought, certainly. That violation breeds creativity. She’d written plays in high school, usually depressive ones, but never shared them. They were likely in a shoe box in the attic of her parents’ Connecticut home. Perhaps she should revisit them, she thought. See what rules she’d set and broken.
It was nearly six-fifteen at that point. Wren found a small notebook in her bag, along with a pen James had given her himself, and wrote a short, simple note explaining her resignation. She left it on the coffee table and was out the door before the ink had even dried.