The Artwork 5
“ Mr. West we have been over this before. I feel sorry to say but I have no further information on Stacey sorry.” Mr. Bashir was truly sorry but pensive for he had other realty business to attend to.
“ I apologize, but I’m at my wits end.” Jamal West said. “Goodbye.”
Jamal ended the call and put his Smart phone back in his suit pocket. The chill of an early spring afternoon had no affect on Jamal sitting on one of a string of long benches along Battery Park City Plaza , the benches were a favorite place for Stacey and Jamal to meet up at. Staring up to Stacey’s former condominium windows on the 23rd floor, Jamal still could not come to grips with her disappearance .the whole strange affair replayed in his mind god knows how many times.
The crappy portrait of the clown she brought. Stacey freaking out, but not wanting to rid herself of it. The night she hit him Jamal , with a hammer and something inside of the painting slashing the top of his hands. The heartbreak of how in hindsight he should have stay with her the day she vanished.
No next of kin made Stacey out to be an enigma. As for Stacey’s friends Millie and Flora the mystery deepened. Flora claimed she never met or knew of a Stacey Allen, Millie Riggs or Jamal West.
While the Millie Riggs, he looked up on the internet resembled an older version of the Millie he knew, this Millie lived in retirement on the west coast, a former actress and daughter of pioneering black television actor and circus clown; Wexford Riggs.
Questions, questions and more questions from the NYPD missing persons bureau. They the police took the case to the next level due to the concierge’s desk area video camera caught the image of Stacey entering the building that strange afternoon. Jamal could be vouched for that he was at work by coworkers. But in all the case was becoming cold like the ice cubes in Jamal’s drinks which had intensified on a daily basis edging towards a problem with his job performance at work.
The white cap waves jumping along the Hudson river shook Jamal back to reality. The view of the waves gave Jamal’s mind a brief cascade of tranquil feelings until he remembered , the MPB detective hinted that Stacey may well be at the bottom of the river.
“ I told you again and freakin’ again I never met you, I have never met anyone named Stacey Allen and I sure don’t know a Millie Riggs!” Flora was trying to keep her temper in check.
“But I have pictures of all of us on my phone.” Jamal said.
“I don’t care what so called pictures, you have on your phone!”
“ But Millie was your girl friend.”
“ Ok! OK!” I’m only going to tell you this once. Nothing against gay folks, but I like men, but after dealing with you and not to mention my ex- boy friend Manny, I may have to rethink my feelings about men. I’m sorry for your lost but do NOT… , I mean no more calls, texts, letters. I’m blocking your number, GOOD BYE !” On her end Flora ended the call and flipped the phone onto her couch.
Jamal took another sip out of the glass tumbler of gray goose on the rocks and scrolled through the picture section of his Smart phone. The pictures of him and Stacey were now oddly enough selfies of himself and a fuzzy orange blur. Even more disturbing , was in one of the pictures taken at a cafe , if you looked past their image you could see a grumpy faced Flora working as a barista serving coffee.
“The hell is going on, this is not right. Damn it ,its not right!” Jamal shouted as he flung the tumbler against the wall , in his trendy apartment, glass, vodka and cold case ice scattering about.
The next day at Dunkirk Capital a hung over Jamal decided to play a last ditch hunch about Stacey but waited until he got home to work on it.
Research on Millie Riggs turned up the following information for different internet research engines :
Millie Riggs actress, art collector (b. 1940) daughter of Wexford Riggs(b.1920-d.1992) African American television actor and Cole Bros. circus clown.
Ms. Riggs has appeared in the following television shows : Gidget, Shindig, Room 222, The Time Tunnel, The Bold Ones, The Flip Wilson Show, Beat The Clock (game show), Good Teimes, Murder She Wrote, The Slappy White Show, The Bob Newhart Show, NYPD Blue
Movies : In The Heat of The Night, Coogan’s Bluff, Hit man and Sugar Hill
A further internet search pulled up her Riverside California address and phone number. Jamal waited until the middle of the week, to get up the courage to call Ms. Riggs around 6pm east coast time so as to not make a pest of himself and interrupting her dinner.
“Hello Ms. Riggs ?” Nervousness pulled at his throat.
“ Who’s this? Hello?” a firm younger voice challenged on the other end.
“Which Ms. Riggs are you trying to reach?”
“ Ms. um… Ms. Millie Riggs.”
“ No this is not Millie Riggs. This is her granddaughter Celeste Riggs.” Celeste hated telemarketers. “ May I help you ?”
“ My name is Jamal West and I’m with Dunkirk Asset Management and I…”
“ Sorry Mr. West I ,can assure you my grandmother would not be interested in anything your selling.” Jamal did not like the sound of that. Did he somehow miss her death notice?
“ No wait! I’m not selling anything. In truth I doing research for a book I am writing about black entertainers in Hollywood during the 1960’s and 1970’s.” Jamal would toast himself later with a tumbler of vodka for thinking up such a good lie in such quick time.
“Oh and what you want to do, interview her about her career?” Celeste’s softened a bit demeanor.
“ Yes and her father’s career, I may add. I loved see his reruns on television.” Jamal was reaching.
“Really ? I tell you what Mr. West, Grand ma’s out in the garden right now tending to her flowers; and when she comes in she’s usually tired, but I promise if you call back tomorrow around this time I think she will be up for talking to you. It has been awhile since anyone has asked about her and her father’s career.”
“Well thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t— oh right Celeste is your name right ?”
“Yes Celeste , Her granddaughter both of my parents are no longer with us.”
“ Sorry to hear that.” Jamal quickly wiped the sweat of the face of his smart phone.
“Its ok , my parents are not dead as far as I know they just up and left ten years ago, left me, grandma and what she was to leave them in her will. She had the will changed last year. But this is way too much information, right now , call back tomorrow for the answers to your questions goodnight Jamal.” how Celeste ended a phone call even reminded him of Stacey.
“ This is not me.”Mumbled Jamal before draining his glass.
“ Hello Stace—I’m sorry Celeste.” The voice thrashing in his mind stopped just enough , to remind him to be cool.
“ Hi Jamal. Oh that’s ok.” if anything Celeste was unfazed by Jamal’s name mix up.
“ Is Ms. Riggs available?”
“ Yes here she is .”the sound of a phone changing hands could be heard.
“ Oh honey you can set that glass down right there , thank you.” after the sound of a sip. “Hello Mr. West ? Millie Riggs here. Celeste has told me you want to go down memory lane with me about me and my dad’s careers in movies and television. Is that right ?” Millie said in her best stage voice.
“Yes Ms. Riggs hello. I guess Celeste to you about my research and future book, I also would ah, like to ask you questions about you art collection.”
As if a tiny cloud passed over the phone connection, Millie’s mood became tentative. “Not too many people knew of the collection except for a vague reference in a Jet magazine interview in the 70’s, I did.”
For the next twenty minutes, Millie went on about her and her father’s careers and how it was to grow up black in Hollywood. Jamal waited for the right time to ask her about Stacey. Jamal did find it odd that he actually jotted down some of Millie’s golden memories, down on a piece of paper he fund crumbled on his coffee table.
“ Mr. West your not really interested in me and my father Wexford’s career are you ?”
“ Uh yes, yes I am ma’am.” Jamal stammered. Ms. Riggs stage voice now had an intimidating tone over the phone to Jamal.
“ Your lying Mr. West because if you knew anything about my father you would know that my father never performed as “ Booby the Clown” on television. He felt Booby was a step back for him. Wasn’t until he was inducted into the circus clown hall of fame, in Milwaukee in 1981, that he put that god forsaken grease paint on one last time. He even had a fight with Cole Bros. early in his career because they originally wanted him to perform in black face, which he refused to do.” another sip could be heard, Jamal imagined a glass of white wine in front of Millie as she continued. “ Now what is it you really want Mr. West?”
“I want Stacey back. I love her.”
“ Who’s Stacey honey ?” Millie asked.
“ Jamal recounted everything that had transpired last year and this year. When he got to the parts of the macabre tale in which he described the kitsch clown painting and the younger version of her, Millie gasped both times over the phone. In the end, her end of the phone became silent.
“ Hello Ms. Riggs ?”
“ I think you need to come out to the west coast Mr. West , I maybe be able to help you.” Millie offered before taking another sip, of whatever she was imbibing.
Bleary from a red rye flight to the west coast, shots of energy drinks with a nip of vodka , Jamal made his way from LAX to Riverside in a rented black Honda Pilot.
Ms. Riggs had made her royalties earnings and her father’s estate holdings work for her towards a ranch and other properties. Being a sharp business woman she now enjoyed life just outside of town. As Jamal pulled up a very regal looking woman in blue jeans , crisp white tee shirt smudged with top soil, white deck sneakers approached the rental car. Jamal gripped the steering wheel of the pilot tight as this older version of the phantom Millie Riggs that he and Stacey knew back in New York waved to him.
“Mr. West you look tired , she said opening the door for him. “ How was your trip?”
“ I’ll be ok. Jet lag you know.” At least Jamal tried to fresh up in the airport men’s room and pop a breath mints in his mouth during the drive.
“ I’ll have one of the care takers bring any bags you have in to the house.” she said beckoning a stout Latino ranch hand. The ranch hand ambled towards the Honda .
“ In truth I checked in to a road side motel my bags are there. Jamal said as he followed her through the front door. Millie waved the ranch hand off , who silently went back to his chores.
Millie led Jamal into a spacious living room area well furnished with high end antique furniture. Celebrity photos were strategically place around the room. Two Emmys stood guard on the mantle over the fire place one presented to her, the other to her father for their work in television.
“ You see Jamal the Buck Zorba I knew was a magician and a friend of my father and me all those years ago in Cole bros. circus, Buck fancied himself and artist too.” Millie was seated next to Jamal on a sofa, as if they knew each other for years.
“ By the way where is your granddaughter Celeste, she was so nice on the phone.” Jamal asked trying to hide his real motive.
“ Celeste is in town running some errands for me with my great grandson Shawn she’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“ I would like to meet her.”
“ The clown painting of my father , what did you say happened to it.”
“ I don’t know. I never thought to ask building management what exactly did they do with it , I think I was afraid to.” Jamal confessed.
“ Come child I have something to show you.” Rising up off the sofa Millie took Jamal by the hand and led him down a hallway to two dark wood sliding doors. Pressing a sequence of numbers on a touch key pad on the wall to the right side of the doors, the sound of a bolt unlocking gave them the go ahead to enter the room. Light fixtures in the ceiling blinked on exposing about thirty 3feet by 2 feet canvas paintings under a loose tarp. Some type of climate control system hummed in the background giving the room the feel of a museum, yet still under alterations like an art exhibit being readied for the public, although both Millie and Jamal knew that would never happen.
“ Buck kept sending my father these paintings up to when he passed away , while in retirement down in Tampa in 1974.” Millie was still holding on to Jamal’s hand.”At first my father humored Buck by taking them, not wanting to break the heart of an old magician , who lost himself to drink, but then my father noticed these paintings had some strange aura, I tried to tell him back in 1954 when I was a child. I remember having nightmares about New York in what was the future to me back then.” Millie seemed relieved to be sharing this with Jamal. “ Now each of these paintings has some type of …. oh I don’t know lord, something going on within them. Help me pull the tarp back love, I mean Jamal.”
“ Grandma!” Celeste called out her and Shawn her son came into the house shopping bags in their hands.
“ Stacey!” Jamal yelled letting go of the tarp and running to the house vestibule at the sound of Stacey’s voice. For a second Millie was jealous, for she was attracted to the young man, but given the situation she understood. Following behind him, although Millie was fit for her age , she could not keep up.
“Stacey !?” Jamal stopped and fell to his knees.
Celeste had no resemblance to Stacey at all. Wearing a denim outfit ,long raven black hair that ran down her back instead of auburn twists, Celeste was petit and part native American who favored her absent mother in looks. Standing still in fear while, Shawn who was big for his years moved along side her to protect her. Celeste’s shopping bags dropped to the floor.
Jamal dropped to the floor too.
Two days later…
Everything was packed into the back of the pilot for the drive to LAX and in turn the flight back home. Obsession had evolved into embarrassment , when Jamal had passed out, after seeing that Celeste was not Stacey. A trip to a nearby emergency room and a day’s rest had got Jamal back to reality. Just as Jamal opened the car door to get in, a silver SUV pulled up behind him , in front of the motel entrance.
“ Mr. West please wait a minute please.” Celeste was calling from the driver’s side window. Shawn as silent as usual was in the back seat in a Los Angeles Angel’s jersey and cap, blue denim shorts and Nikes listening to something on his phone, ear buds in ears. Facial features and hair like his mother , but with green intense eyes like his great great grandfather.
“ Again I’m sorry for putting you and your grandmother through my madness.” said Jamal not really making eye contact, the shame was just too much.
Celeste ignored the apology coming around where he stood and handed a Fed Ex shipping receipt. “ Here Mr. West my grandmother and I have shipped to you two pieces of artwork that should help you in this time of hurt, we have made arrangements for the work to be delivered ,after you have had time to get back to the east coast. Once you see the paintings you will know what to do.” and with that Celeste climbed back into her SUV.
“ But wait a minute … what are these paintings, but I didn’t get to see any back at the ranch in the room ?” said Jamal.
“ Oh yes and one more thing, never come back to Riverside Mr. West.” Celeste said and as if on cue Shawn pulled his ear buds out of his ears and glared at Jamal as they pulled off from the curb.
Days later the paintings arrived at Jamal’s apartment. Unpacking the first artwork he took one look and knew what had to be done. Rushing out to any store that had packing material, Jamal repackaged the painting and had FedEx pick it up and shipped to a new address. For the other painting Jamal waited until nightfall to unpack it and hang it on his living room wall, this done in fear. Tears running down his cheeks and blubbering like a child Jamal sat back on his couch.
“ This is you babe!”
The canvas oil painting of Stacey had her nude and reclining on a zebra skin rug her auburn hair now a large perfectly round afro , gold necklace and bracelets around her wrist nail and toes painted a neon orange. Behind her in the background psychedelic swirls of tangerine, peach, blood red, yellow and pink, pulsated expanded and contracted, the style of the artwork like an old “Groovy Ghoulies” filmmation cartoon from the early 70’s.
“ The first distorted notes of Funkadelic’s “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” began to mix with the hot colors, foaming and bubbling off of the canvas and on to the floor, like hot wax. Stacey’s brown eyes fixed on Jamal. Movement of her hands beckoning him, hands he had longed to touch since her disappearance last year.
“ Come babe.” she pleaded.” Come child!” in a voice eerily like that of Wexford Riggs aka Booby the clown.
“ Damn Stacey I ….”
It was quick.
Stacey’s fingernails raked across Jamal’s face, drawing blood and blinding him. before he could react she raked him a bloody mess again from the other side of his face and snatched him into the painting.
Jamal bolted upright in bed, disoriented by his surroundings for a moment. Morning sunlight peeked down into his basement apartment through the small basement window. He was sweaty and naked in bed. Jamal flinched when he heard the door at the top of the stairs unlock and footsteps tap down the stairs towards him.
“ Good morning babe you ready for breakfast.”said Stacey holding a bag of groceries and the Brooklyn edition of the New York Daily News in one arm, and her keys in the other hand. Stopping in front of the bed Stacey wearing an old purple sweater ,jeans, white P.F flyer sneakers and a pink bandana to hold her afro in place, dropped the news paper on the bed , the back page head line screaming about the matchup between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles and how the 1971 World Series should be a good one. She sensed something was wrong.
“Another nightmare about NAM ?” Stacey said reminding him of his horrific tour of duty in Vietnam a year ago in 1970.
“ What was it then babe ?” Stacey said.
“ I … I dreamed that I lost you.” said Jamal formerly known as Leroy West while eyeing a landscape painting of a ranch home hanging on the wall.
“ That’s so sweet.” Stacey giggled, she figured she would leave it at that.” She was concerned though when Jamal had these nightmares. “Well how about some breakfast to take your mind off of it?” Putting the bag down on a make shift coffee table ,she came over the to the side of the bed a planted a kiss on Jamal’s forehead.
Going into the bathroom and turning on the light Jamal sized himself up in the mirror.
“ This is me.” He said to his mirror image.
Flora Green pulled the large package the Fed Ex person delivered into her apartment. Unpacking it revealed a painting of a harlequin clown from the commedia dell’arte done up in purple , silver and white against a black background. Sad looking , it seemed like she recognized the face from somewhere.
“ Shit its from that Jamal West. I guess he calls himself sending this as a peace offering.” she thought. After some internal debate Flora decided to keep it. Even if she decided to send it back there would be no Jamal West to send it back to.
Plus there’s something about the artwork she was being drawn to.