Monday, February 22, 2010

Axel's Crossing

As that unseemly day in the Bronx Zoo faded from his consciousness, Axel rarely thought of Graziella.  She had become a phantasm, a mere wisp of memory, easily blinked away when, on the odd occasion, her birdlike mien briefly flickered across a synapse.

Until, of course, that inopportune day in the Calico Grill on Park Avenue--what was a New Yorker like Axel doing in a hamburger joint whose walls were decorated with rusty license plates and salvaged farm implements?--where Axel ordered,  he remembered it quite clearly, a California Bacon Burger, which the zaftig but cheerless waitress served perfunctorily, carelessly shaking the lone onion ring off its toothpick anchor in the middle of the bun.  As the crispy circle slipped unimpeded down the bun, past the plate, along the tabletop and, finally and precipitously and sloppily to the floor, Axel grimaced in very real pain:  it was a Proustian moment, he recognized it immediately, rendered even more harrowing by the fact that  it was triggered, not by a delicate madeleine, but by an over-fried onion ring.

Instantly he was  transported back in time (or, rather, outside of time, to the Bronx Zoo)--reliving the shame of witnessing Graziella's pantyhose--whose elastic waistband had snapped--slipping, slipping, slipping--inexorably, unbearably--to the ground.

There, in the faux western diner, Axel--it must be admitted--wailed in anguish.  Unable to face the zaftig waitress, and finding no convenient parakeet pavilion to which to flee, Axel unceremoniously rushed from the restaurant.  Running with no destination (though not entirely aimlessly, since he always maintained certain, well, "parameters"), Axel quickly traversed several blocks of Midtown.  Finding himself, at last, in the familiar verdure of southernmost Central Park (Axel rarely ventured north of the Pond--certainly not into the Sheep Meadow because, who knows?), Axel slowed his pace.  The agony was fading and, of course, there were the ducks to look at.  What to do, what to do?

A moment in church suddenly seemed appropriate.  Some nice stained glass and some soothing music.  Axel often sought refuge and comfort in the fuzzy incense-clouded obscurity of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue--it was a haven of beauty and grace in the middle of this hellish, stressful city.  Penetrating the gloom, Axel discovered to his delight that a choral high Anglican mass was in progress--and it must have been a saint's day, since the three priests (yes, three--not the pathetic solitary priest so common in Catholic and Broad Church services) were sumptuously arrayed in scarlet stoles and chasubles, all overlaid with gold and flames (fortunately, no birds).  Axel wasn't particularly interested in Christian dogma--all the penalties and punishments distressed him--but he adored the ceremony and, well, the choreography.  High-church Anglicans had much better choreography than Catholics--they just put on a better show, with a lot fewer breaches in decorum (Catholics sometimes got so rowdy).

So Axel genuflected into a pew and watching and listening, he found that the remembrance of things past gradually subsided, to be replaced by fleeting reflections about this and that.  As he admired the skill of the priests in synchronized movement and voice, his weary mind began to wander.  What kind of underwear do those handsome, self-confident fellows wear under their albs?  Axel had once tried boxer shorts, thinking them more unobtrusive, more chaste (when white) than briefs.  But after considerable thought about medieval and renaissance codpieces--and especially in fear of losing his own underwear should an elastic waistband snap, Axel had at last committed himself to the tightest of hip-hugging briefs.  He preferred to think that the elegant priests shared his predilection.

As the mass ended, Axel found himself again in the harsh, noisy and noisome street.  Perhaps he should go home; yes, that was safe.  He would take a crosstown bus, on 57th Street.  As he boarded the ugly blue and white vehicle, Axel reflexively slipped the corner of his dampish Metrocard beneath his thumbnail, where a morsel of--what was it? votive candle wax?--had lodged. Unfortunately, an elderly lady noticed the grooming gesture and smiled knowingly.  Axel collapsed onto the hard plastic bench--not really a seat--how could they call it a seat?--in utter humiliation.  It was all such a burden, such a burden.  He would get out at the next stop.  He signaled.  The door swung open and Axel emerged into the rain-drenched street.  Thunder.  Sturm und Drang.

Turning west, Axel bowed his head, accepting as he must the rain that streamed down and under his cashmere sweater.  Nothing to do.  Then, in the turgid gutter, Axel noticed--oh, must it all begin again?--a half-drowned sparrow, hopping about and pecking pathetically at a soggy onion ring that was floating listlessly along toward the storm drain.  Unable to maintain any further semblance of sprezzatura, Axel surrendered at last to emotion and horror:  "Graziella? he whimpered.

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