The Gondolier of Bethesda Landing
It was on Thursday, September eighteenth, that she decided to take a Walk.
She always thought of an occasion like this as if it had an initial capital, and so was a Walk. Several times a year, when the unease in her soul was especially turbulent, she took a Walk, to try to gain clarity or, at least, to negotiate a working arrangement with herself. Her younger brother had once observed that these Walks were not randomly distributed throughout the year, but rather were aligned with solstices, full moons, equinoxes, or some such. However, she had never paid attention to the rhythms of sun, moon, and earth, and so she ignored his observation. She did notice when the inner nagging became too heavy to ignore, and that's when she took a Walk. Six o'clock this morning was such a time, and she took this Walk at the south end of the park, entering at the Artisan's Gate off Central Park South.
At first she thought of work, which was her typical way of avoiding what a Walk was all about. She found no refuge there. Her accounts were all in order. At thirty, she had successfully brought into the agency accounts for an airline, an automobile, an oil company, a consumer electronics firm, and more, over the course of only five years. Interns and new hires believed her to be a minor living god. Upper management at the advertising agency, who well knew the unstable financial realities of the sea upon which their agency sailed, dropped the "minor" from that description.
Her saves in the line of duty were stories of legend. Pitching a vodka account in L.A., she had flown into town on Friday night for a Monday afternoon meeting. The agency's creative head and media director, trying to fly in on Sunday, both wound up stuck in O'Hare when wind conditions became perilous. She had run the entire presentation solo, got the business, got their whiskey and bourbon and champagne accounts as well, and increased agency billings by seven percent, single-handedly, in one day.
This was not a morning for a Walk at the Pond, she decided. She walked briefly along the paths bordering the roadway, filled with joggers and bicyclists speeding past her on a road soiled by the horses that drew carriages for hire. She wished to shout out at the exercisers, You are breathing horse dung deep into your lungs with every step, but she knew that those kinds of straightforward messages were seldom appreciated, even by those who needed them most. To motivate them to change their ways, she thought, they would need to be hit by the psychic equivalent of a two-by-four, or a nasty lung infection, not by some mere statement. She headed for a place where the horse-drawn carriages could not go, where she would breathe deeply and think.
Pitching a Japanese electronics game account during a trade show in Boston, she had dragged in her younger brother, the unemployed 'writer,' longtime game freak, and former missionary in Japan; she had bought him a haircut and better clothes. His language skills and dopey little tales from the mission field won over the famously reserved clients. As a missionary in Hiroshima, her brother had once mixed up his vocabulary; instead of saying that the resurrected Jesus had a tangible body like a human being, he had solemnly testified that Christ had an edible body like a carrot. After hearing this particular story, at least one of the Japanese executives had soiled himself from the laughter. She bought her brother three new game systems from her bonus money. And a car.
She was resourceful, driven, loyal, quick-witted, and brilliant. She was also deeply unhappy, for reasons she could not articulate; hence the occasional Walks.
She reached Literary Walk, that stretch of the Mall where statues to some of literature's immortals had been placed. It bothered her how short Literary Walk was. Shakespeare and, oddly, Columbus flanked the entrance to Literary Walk, but then there were only three other statues, one each to Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Fitz-Greene Halleck. Put aside the fact that these were the very Whitest of Dead White Men. (Not even Dante, she thought.) How the hell did Halleck make the cut? she wondered. Halleck was a bad poet and a cranky satirist, productive for just a few years. She would have put a lot of money on a bet that typical professors of American literature could not put together three meaningful sentences about Halleck's verse, not even with big bright shiny knives put to the throats of their children. And yet, President Rutherford B. Hayes and his entire Cabinet had attended the dedication of Halleck's statue, a larger-than-life bronze on a monster granite pedestal.
Literary Walk was a short part of the Mall. She figured that there was room for seven more widely spaced statues along the Mall. She used to go over lists of possible candidates, until finally she realized that she was always stuck on the last one-because she wanted it to be her. But no one erected statues to advertising account executives, no matter how large their accounts.
The Mall is one of the few features in Manhattan that is aligned along a true north-south axis. As she walked north, past Literary Walk, under the arch of trees just beginning to lose their leaves, she could almost feel the sun rising, directly off her right shoulder.
Passing the northern border of the Mall, she turned east and stood before the sad, gently crumbling Naumberg Band Shell. She saw herself there, on the stage, speaking, saying something with passion and conviction and inspiration to an unseen audience. But she could not make out her own words. Something about nuclear disarmament? And the environment? Minority rights? Affordable housing? She could hear intonations and emphases, but few syllables.
Returning to her northward course, she crossed a road, and stood looking down upon the magnificent Bethesda Fountain and Landing, on the Lake. Much of this had been in the original plan for Central Park; some considered it the very heart of the Park. A broad brick plaza led to steps that went right down into the waters of the Lake. (She thought she remembered boats picking people up on those steps, back when she was a girl.) In the center of the plaza stood an addition that had become the center of attention: a three-story fountain, splashing away even now, topped by a huge statue of an angel in a position of-what? Calming? Healing? Something soothing. At the east and west ends of the quay on the Lake, the parks commission had placed tall ornate banners like something out of Lord Dunsany, Tolkien, or Eddison: an orange one with the seal of Parks, and a green one with the seal of the City. As she came down the stairs and crossed the plaza to the edge of the water, she thought it would be fitting to see a barge landing there, with a delegation from the High Warden of the Esanocian Marches, dressed in ermines and jewels. Instead, she saw a gondolier.
He was dressed simply, in black trousers and a white poet's shirt, light on the frills but big on chest hair. His gondola pole was blood red, and his gondola, unlike the style in Venice, was a cool bright green. He brought his gondola to rest just a foot or two beyond the last step of the quay. She noticed that, like her, he wore no ring.
"Could I invite my lady on a journey?", he asked.
"Where are you going?"
"To a place much like this, where nothing is the same."
"We share the same sun and moon, but we have no appointments, no promotions. We enjoy each day like a finely cut gem."
The gondolier laughed. "Oh, really?" He said in a gently mocking tone, "And what has all your self-denial and discipline gotten you?" He smiled, and turning his gondola, poled a course to the west of the Lake, around a bend and out of sight of the Landing. She stood on the quay for a long while and then slowly walked to the office, as she had planned. She sat in her office for some time, her assistant holding all calls.
On Friday morning, she was back at the quay. It was not long before the gondolier came by. "So, how does my lady this morning?" he said.
"I am wondering just who or what you are."
"I am but a simple gondolier, my lady."
"No, you're not."
He laughed again. "My lady sees through my thin disguise. Call me, then, an agent provocateur of the soul. A gadfly. A cosmic noodge. I am a rogue tarot card, the Ace of Gondoliers, and your task is to find the best interpretation of the Mystery that I present."
"You are a temptation."
"And how does my lady deal with temptation?"
"I never submit to it."
"Oh," he asked, smiling, as he started to pole his gondolier away. "Haven't you now?"
She stood again at the quay, watching him leave. The walk south on the Mall was slow-or was she just thinking even more quickly than usual?-as she pondered what the gondolier said. She had taken the safe route in her life, the path to financial security above all else, the economics degree followed by two years in business followed by Wharton followed by five years in driven pursuit of success.
She came to the pitifully scant Literary Walk. Her sloppy little brother, the 'writer,' in his lousy apartment on a corner of Staten Island, at least tried to be true to some sort of vision, with his pitiful little stories and the four novels he was always working on. (Never the same four, from one family holiday to the next; just, four.) He needed help with the rent from time to time, but at least he aimed for something beyond himself. She realized that, if Indulgence was a temptation, so was Security, a false idol of which she was a fervent devotee.
She walked to her midtown office, arriving the first of all staff, as usual. By the time her assistant arrived, she had written a memo directing him to postpone a number of her appointments, and describing which sorts of calls she would not be available to accept throughout the day. She had planning to do, as she considered her accounts and her many responsibilities. By the end of the day (she being the last to leave, also as usual), she had a new prioritized to-do list for each account, and a calendar of new goals to accomplish over the next two weeks. She pursued different phases of planning through the weekend at home, as she consulted her personal financial statements and online course catalogs, and composed what amounted to a cross between a personal business plan and an order of battle.
Early Monday morning, she returned to the quay. It was not long before the gondolier poled his boat to a position just off the steps into the water.
"And how does my lady do this fine morning?" the gondolier asked.
"Very well, actually," she answered. "And yourself?"
"Oh, if you are doing well, then certainly I am in extraordinarily fine condition. And what leads you to this happy state?"
She sat down on the top step of the quay, her sensible shoes just inches above where the water lapped on and off the bottom step. "I've decided to make some changes," she said. "I won't be taking your gondola around to the other side of the Lake, but I won't be continuing the journey I've been taking either."
"How so?" "I'm leaving the agency. 'Pursuing other interests,' they call it." She described her plans to him: the blogs and the opinion columns; the masters degree in political science, the public access television show; later, after she had garnered some publicity, the radio show, working off her contacts in broadcast media. Maybe law school.
"And your ultimate objective?" the gondolier asked.
"To make a difference," she answered, "for something more than what brand of toothpaste someone buys."
The gondolier smiled, nodded, and started to pole his gondola away from the quay. She stood and said, "Sorry I won't be taking that journey with you."
"Oh, aren't you, though?" he replied. She watched him pole away to the west of the Lake, until he floated out of sight.
Six and a half years later, she was back at Bethesda Landing, standing just north of the fountain, facing a magazine of photographers and reporters and the Lake beyond, as she announced her candidacy for city council. The better photographers were on their knees or in other limbo positions, straining to get the shot of her with the angel of the fountain high in the background.
"Centuries ago," she said, "so the story goes, an angel came down to disturb the waters of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem." She gestured to the angel on the fountain behind her. "Whoever then stepped into the pool first was cured of whatever illness they had.
"Well, maybe there are still angels out there healing the sick. But for the most part, we have to be our own angels. We have to be angels for better prenatal care, better mental health care, better care for the poor with AIDS and veterans with traumatic brain injuries . . ." She outlined her platform with enthusiasm, and when she saw the gondolier, gliding out on the Lake far behind the press corps, she returned his nod.
Mark Koltko-Rivera is a native New Yorker. Although he has lived and worked for extended periods in Hiroshima, Japan, Haverford, Pennsylvania, and Winter Park, Florida, the village that raised him was Greenwich Village, and he now resides again in Manhattan. His fiction has recently been published in The Legendary and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Poetry and essays have appeared in Dialogue and The Gamut. His nonfiction book, 666: The Biography of a Beastly Number, should appear late in 2011 from Tarcher/Penguin. His Google profile, which has links to his blogs and several publications, is available at http://www.google.com/profiles/markkoltkorivera