“MONK,” FILE 24
— Better what? What about yourself?
Nellie is not hungry, nor is she sure that Monk is asking after her hunger.
— I don’t want for anything right now.
Nellie does not sigh or think of her atmosphere. Nellie’s not-quite uniform (a curious buttermilk of a yellow, one tinged with a pale green; it can pass for white) emerges from underneath her overcoat as the squeak of her service Oxfords ho-hums towards her window. The window that’s hers. Nellie’s. She catches the final phases of the sundown and ponders more remarks for her husband. Today? What Chinese progressions, what off-beat beats, what confusions has he unleashed upon an already confused world? Honestly, if Nellie weren’t so tired she would be honest with herself, she wouldn’t expect from herself the expectation of answers any more elaborate than the glances her husband levels at her and then, lackadaisically yet unmistakably, almost with a class clown’s relish for being caught, from which he sneaks himself away. Monk’s eyes peering up into the slant overhanging his brow, or sidling around an ear, or ricocheting off the floor they’ve just mapped into a straight look that should accompany a smile but instead seems superimposed, saying to itself “You are here” despite the fact that the rest of the face shambles, lost—these and other Monkish scrutinies seem to Nellie to be expressions which exist only in the transition between real expressions. Expressions, that is, not inherently Monkish.
Under the cover of some darkness, Nellie leaves her husband to worry again at his handful of notes. She pushes her way into the kitchen. She messes with the pilot light on the range, heats up leftover country ham and succotash, takes three un-preheated bites to confirm that she won’t go hollow later. As hollow as a trombone eating its heart out. Monk takes his dinner at the piano, chewing loudly by way of conversation. As an apéritif (to a meal almost certain to be missed), Nellie pours herself remainders of breakfast over the city lights waking to answer each other, if not her, across the screen of the window. Gradually, a reflection attracts her focus.
Monk is on the prowl. He is looking for what Nellie conjectures has to be a Theloniously debonair chapeau. He files through grosgrain and canvas and felt, through pork pies, derbies, boaters, fedoras, coolies, fezzes, berets, Panamas, Tyroleans, Phrygians, homburgs. Surrounding, blunting the corners of their bedroom’s doorframe is a wire contraption of Monk’s own devising. Hung softly on knobs fashioned from torn bits of sponge pegged to the crook of entwined clothes-hanger hooks, the rows and columns of Monk’s appurtenances are distributed unevenly… or is it that the hats make a singular spiral that is also a line, one that seems not to be following itself but to be distributing itself apart, into a scatter of other possible lines. (Does the one line terminate in these tributaries, or do all hats, all lines feed this one line? Nellie flattens her lips and shakes her head.) The hats, if they did not already have fanciful tales associated with them by virtue of being companions to Thelonious Monk, or by virtue of having being carefully chosen, tried on, courted by him—the hats could have been a fable. And Nellie’s bedroom door could instead house a way-station where the angels who should be doing their guardian duties have hung their halos, having stopped long enough to wash their feet, to digest a few biscuits, to check the timetables, to be a stranger for just a relieving hour or two. But, in Nellie’s experience, guardian angels love their cards and liquor too much, and have gotten it into their heads that every plunk of their harps is heavenly.
Monk’s improvised hatrack revolves in its entirety, and through old occasions whose most powerful presence is a puff of cigar smoke slipped like a feather behind the hatband, a stain, a place where fraying has begun to split into threads, a rubbed tag where a size has been erased by nap and hair tonic, an association with a Monkish chuckle that signals (Nellie guess) a half-involuntary reminiscence. And Nellie’s husband can only reach so high. Nellie has still not mastered this appliance’s literal physics; she is afraid of the day that is coming when she will. How does everything move? Nellie swears she has heard the squeal and bark of casters. Never mind. What Nellie observes most is how the surrogate head left bare since the night of its ward’s arrest and confiscation migrates just as the less indictable boaters and caps and tams do—Monk choses, or acts the maid and dusts with a pump from a fireplace bellows he himself has patched—yet with reference to no center other than its own. The other hats bobbingly churn in their own droll epicycles as the larger orbit takes them around the doorframe’s partial (or extinguished) sun, but that naked place has at least a constancy; as if, despite the appearance of being a nearby heat, within the system of toppers themselves, it were really a lode star much more remote, on the other end of a telescope, and yet also possessed of a density greater than egress and ingress could ever enlarge upon. What had he been wearing that night? Be more mindful, Nellie, be a thinker. But no. Nellie has never grasped it before now: Monk never, ever makes the error of re-hanging one of his satellites anywhere except on its original pin.
There is and will be no bickering or pleading for Monk to stay. No, Nellie would rather have her privacy, and pshaw on the risks that go into insuring its custody. Besides, Nellie has to consider this Monk’s work. It may not be his livelihood, or hers, but it is among the labors he must complete. Nellie has to remind herself that this is so. She has to. I have to. When Monk comes in at 4 or 5 in the morning, or even after Nellie herself has woken up and splashed numbing water on her face, and has then disrobed and jumped into the frigid-bottomed claw-foot tub to put the harder, narrower strokes of the broad bath-brush to her back, when her husband comes home in that muddle of early and late and strikes up his piano’s band for one last encore, he’s just as good as punching the clock. And Nellie says to herself that she really has no wish to accompany her husband anyway. To take herself out on his arm. She can do without all that hollering and screaming and carrying on, thank you very much. Nellie knows what it is all about anyway. Ladies will not be served without escort.
But what is in that man’s mind? The question curls into its accustomed shape, a devious strand fretted out of the weave of curiosities that is her love. To marvel at Monk, even just an imperfect reflection of Monk intruded upon by the dazzle of others’ windows, how he sniffs into the recesses of one hat as though testing a cantaloupe’s ripeness, or tugs at the peak of another with milkmaid coarseness. Monk’s thoughts begin to coalesce in Nellie’s darkness, into a when, an event during which those thoughts, Monkisms all, just might show themselves as they are about to be. He is thinking: Nellie. No. Is he thinking about her fear? Could he be? Nellie is chronically afraid. What if Monk won’t fumble at the door and disturb her spare rest? What if Missus Clark decides she does not need her anymore? What if there are more questions to answer, what if questions have already been sealed? What if it becomes a question of what was the nature of her relationship with this Mr. Spence? What if she and Monk find themselves with another mouth to feed? What if Sissy convinces Poppy that she knows better, what’s a summer, then another birthday, another (a first, a second, grade after grade) school year, all the little friends she’s made in this time, do you want to take her away from all that? But Nellie finds herself most anxious when The Baroness phones and purrs her accented and pat persuasions, those clinking glasses and shrill celebrants in the phone’s gravel-pitted backdrop informing Nellie of where she herself is excluded. There are some things you can get away with in pictures and songs, but words, they will not let you get away with them, not at all. So Nellie has to fear the eventual night (she can’t think of it as morning) when the telephone does not cry out for her and she is forced to be content with no trouble at all. Nellie does not want to crouch up, to twist off first the cold, then the hot tap and find herself sitting vulnerable to spotty steam, stripped down not to meager lather and towels warmed over the radiator but only to the facts which are bare but not so scrubbed free of her, The Baroness’, grubbings—what Nellie knows must be true, the facts experience and the oh-so considerate party line have told her she needs to remain positive of. Monk is at The Baroness’. As usual. These are the facts which ring and chirp in Nellie’s ears. What is that woman’s number? Monk has never said; Nellie knows it’s unlikely he’s bothered even looking at the address as he strolls in. But what routes has he committed to memory? Nellie wishes there were such a thing as nice questions, but, no, she supposes that, when it comes to human nature, there aren’t.
Monk is about to choose, Nellie recognizes that hiking of the pants, that cracking of the knuckles. She turns away from the window. The hats must surrender clues to Monk’s moods, they must be clues. Monk never goes anywhere with an uncovered head. Not even to The Baroness’. Not if he’s given the choice to give her a choice.