by Dorothy Spencer
In Search Of: creative, seasoned swf (single white female) to share special times and possible ltr (long term relationship)
Seymour Kurtz is recently out of prison where he’s been serving a ten-year sentence for writing rubber checks. He spends his jail time learning how to make crewel embroidery still life pictures using the colored bits of string and wool he gets from unraveled socks. He learns this skill from his cellmate, Rodney, a hulking lifer who has supposedly murdered several deserving people. No one bothers with Rodney because of his size and the peculiar look he has, caused by the fact that one of his eyes floats from time to time, rumored to have gotten that way in one of his famous altercations.
When Seymour is first put in with Rodney, he sits up day and night waiting for the moment when Rodney will pounce. But Rodney is a quiet man who doesn’t want more trouble. He just wants to be left alone. It is Rodney, however, that does approach Seymour after many days of watching his new cell mate cringe in the corner of his cot. Rodney knows too well the fears one can acquire when living in jail. So Rodney attempts to calm Seymour’s fears by showing him the book that Rodney keeps safely stashed under his mattress.
“It’s about crewel embroidery. And Rosie Greer, you know, the famous football player, he wrote it. It’s not pansy stuff – Rosie Greer ain’t no pansy –– he’s a fucking football player, you know — and — if doing this stuff can mellow him out, I figured..well.. doing this stuff could mellow me out. You want to see the book?” Rodney asked Seymour one day, his giant paw-like hands retrieving his special prize from under his mattress and shoving it under Seymour’s nose – the pages yellowed and thin from reading and rereading.
Seymour, tall, thin, and resembling a crane, looked at his smiling cellmate and let out a long-needed sigh of relief. He gazed down at the pictures, noting the tiny little squares of color, a reminder of how he had learned to forge checks. Immediately, Seymour was attracted to this strange form of hieroglyphic-like communication that his huge cell mate was showing him, and realized that he too wanted to do what Rodney did, thus forming a bond that would allow Seymour to never feel fear again while in prison — he would just learn how to do crewel embroidery.
And once Seymour got the hang of it, there was no stopping the strange pair. Since they worked together in the prison laundry, they had ample time and resources to search for the much-needed bits of colored socks and string they would use to create their pictures. Rodney mainly did various sports-related team insignias while Seymour began appreciating the little still life setups he could bring together in their cell –– a chair with a shoe sitting on the seat, a glass with a plastic spoon sitting inside it, or the occasional flower he would form from crushed up toilet paper –– the flowers fascinated Rodney and so their friendship and creative endeavors blossomed.
When it was time for Seymour to leave prison to start a new life, he felt a deep twinge of regret having to leave Rodney behind but Seymour and his new talent had to go forward. He would write to Rodney and send him more books about crewel embroidery and Rosie Greer.
Ruthie Gallagher was the youngest of six girls –– the Gallagher sisters –– a good Irish Catholic family, all still living in a six-block radius of each other, deep in the heart of the Irish section of Brooklyn. After having witnessed the marriages of her sisters –– Ruthie decided she didn’t really want to get married all that badly.
Ruthie’s family thought that Ruthie was a bit daft. “She needs a good man to keep an eye on her,” they would whisper. The sisters were always on the look out for a man for Ruthie. They believed that Max, the butcher from down the street was the answer. He, like Ruthie, lived with a widowed mother.
But fixing them up was a very different matter. “He’s nice,” Ruthie told her sister, Mary Margaret, one night after having yet another dinner where Max had been invited along, “but he smells like raw meat.” The sisters would roll their eyes up at the sky and Ruthie would go on about her business.
And business was what Ruthie studied. Although she dreamed of doing something with colors –– she had since childhood found herself attracted to colors –– Ruthie’s family knew she had to do something that would provide her with an income once their mam passed — since their hopes for Ruthie and Max faded with each passing dinner date and the look on Ruthie’s face as she inhaled Max’s smell from across the dinner table.
So off Ruthie went to study typing and stenography via the local extension courses from City College. Once she got her diploma Ruthie began scouring the papers for a job. And the job that caught her eye was the one that needed “a special typist with good skills and a way with creative people.” Ruthie applied immediately and to her surprise landed a job in the steno pool at the Brown, Drummond and Kellogg advertising agency on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan.
“Why on earth do you need to travel all that way just to type?” her oldest sister, Euphemia, asked. “You can type right here in Brooklyn and stay close to Mam and us.” But Ruthie was looking for an adventure –– one that would perhaps fulfill that something she seemed to feel missing in her life –– what it was she couldn’t quite say but she sensed that this job just might help point her in the right direction. She was often filled with a sense of wonder and awe when she walked down the halls of the ad agency –– all those brilliantly colored pictures of bottles of ketchup and soap powder –– it was if she was in a museum, although she had never been to one.
It was at Brown, Drummond and Kellogg that Ruthie met Edie Kolinsky, a friendship that was to change Ruthie’s life forever. Edie thought of herself as a true bohemian. She wore her black hair in a single braid down the back of her neck, and no matter what the time of year, she always wore Kelso earth shoes –– barefoot in the spring and summer with brightly painted toenails and with just as brightly colored socks for the colder months.
Edie believed in creating art that was both spiritually uplifting as well as functional; instead of brilliantly colored canvases, Edie chose to make her artistic statements through knitting –– her various articles of clothing reflecting her fanciful views of the earth and its many inhabitants ––swirling down bodices, coiling up sleeves and dancing down legs.
Ruthie sat in awe, while everyday at lunch, Edie’s creations would expand and take on lives of their own — “Don’t stare at me, Ruthie-it’s not like I’m Pablo Picasso. You can do it too –– you got an eye — I can tell.”
But Ruthie didn’t know much about Pablo Picasso or any other artist for that matter. Ruthie had always gone to the parish school affiliated with St. Gertrude of the Beggar, the Catholic church that Ruthie and her family attended, in some cases, twice a day. So the only pictures that Ruthie was familiar with were those of the saints that the nuns would show them.
“I don’t know much about art,” Ruthie confessed one day.
“You don’t have to know a whole lot about art but Ruthie, you have to love some of the things you see at the museum. Don’t you have any favorites you just like to go and look at?” Ruthie looked at Edie then off in the distance, staring at the latest picture that was on the wall of their office –– a scantily clad woman with her legs wrapped provocatively around a larger-than-life size bottle of dishwashing soap. Her silence answered for her.
“Jesus Christ, sweetheart, don’t tell me you’ve never been in a museum?” Edie asked, somewhat dumbfounded by the thought.
Ruthie stared down at the toes of her plain, somewhat scuffed brown flats. She couldn’t bear to look over at Edie whose knitting needles had fallen silent – she was ashamed to admit it. She was also afraid that if any of the other people she worked with found out, then she might lose her job.
Edie put her needles and yarn back into the brightly colored woven sack she carried with her every day. “Look hon, it`s not the end of the world. We can fix it fast enough. I’ll take you. We can go on Sunday. The Metropolitan’s free on Sundays.” Edie leaned across her desk and patted Ruthie’s hand. “You’ll love it – I know you will.”
Ruthie didn’t know just how she was going to be able to meet Edie at the Met. Sundays were a big deal with Ruthie’s family. Early morning mass, confession later –– it was all part of the routine. Mam felt everyone needed to reveal their sins regularly –– especially Ruthie because she went all the way to the city everyday and missed the daily mass. Then everyone had to come back to one of the sister’s houses for Sunday dinner which went on for hours. But Ruthie was determined, even if she had to tell a bit of a lie. (She did cross herself before crossing her fingers behind her back just to be on the safe side). “It’s got to do with a project I’m working on,” she told her sister, Bernadette. “I’ll go to mass on Saturday night instead.”
So for the first time in her life, Ruthie Gallagher found herself walking up the steep steps that led to the grand entrance halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where her friend Edie was patiently sitting on one of the marbled benches near the front door.
Ruthie’s first time was almost more than she could bear. Edie showed her picture upon picture and, with each new picture Ruthie choked up even more until she had to sit down on a bench in front of one of the Monets just to get her breath. It was if Edie Kolinsky had given Ruthie Gallagher a gift that was beyond her wildest imagination.
Ruthie and Edie met just about every Sunday afternoon at the Met to stand and look at the pictures. Ruthie stopped worrying about what her family thought and left her mother’s house for the Met just as regularly as she left for work.
The more pictures Ruthie looked at, the more she felt the need to make her own artistic statement. And what better outlet was the one that was already sitting across from her at Brown Drummond and Kellogg – Edie Kolinsky, knitter extraordinaire. “Teach me to knit, Edie, please teach me to knit like you,” Ruthie said one morning. “I want to knit with color – like the Impressionists!” she said loudly, her blue eyes wide, beaming at the way she was able to say “Impressionist” in such a worldly fashion.
Artie Putnam was Seymour Kurtz’s neighbor down the hall. He had watched as Seymour moved into the small apartment, carrying his personal belongings in two overflowing shopping bags. Then waited a few days to see what kind of person Seymour seemed to be. Quiet, didn’t bother with anyone. Just went about his business — to some kind of job every day. Came home at the same time every night. Always carrying a folded up paper shopping bag under his arm in the mornings but returning with it filled with whatever every night.
Artie, after realizing that Seymour appeared harmless and alone, introduced himself. “So when did you get out of stir?” Artie asked one day as they both headed down the stairs for the day. Seymour’s face went blank as he stared back at the rounded, squat man with the barrel chest and shaved head.
Then ever so slightly, Seymour blinked, bird-like at Artie.”How’d you know ?”
“Landlord. He’s been there, too. He rents to ex-cons just as long as they’re..um.you know..okay kinda guys.”
Seymour nodded silently, then turned and headed quickly up the street.
“See ya,” Artie shouted after him.
It would be several more weeks of casual conversations in the hall before Seymour accepted an invitation for a burger and a beer at the corner bar. “So what were ya in for?” Again, Artie repeated his original question.
“Did you write a lot of little ones or just a couple of big ones?” Artie asked curiously.
“It was a little of both,” Seymour whispered across the table. “I have this kind of … um … artistic calling … of course it wasn’t as good as I thought it was but I was really good at it for a while. Then I got greedy…wrote too many from the same accounts.” Seymour frowned and shrugged wearily. “My boss got wise to me. then wanted me to cut him in on it and promised he wouldn’t say anything just as long as he got his share. It was only a matter of time before someone found out. So I got caught and got ten years.”
“And your boss..”
“He’s still working at the bank”
“You didn’t rat him out, the son of a bitch?”
Seymour shook his head. He had done his time and now he wanted nothing more to do with his past. He liked his new job at the book store. It was right down the street from the Salvation Army store so he could stop on the way home and look for socks.
Artie noticed that whenever he and Seymour went for a burger and a beer, Seymour had a habit of looking at people’s feet. Could he be a foot freak? Stranger people had come out of jail with stranger likes. One day, while they were sitting in Tasty Burger, their favorite eatery, Seymour seemed particularly captivated by the man sitting across from them. He was wearing a pair of brightly colored striped socks that appeared to be fraying somewhat around his ankles. Seymour couldn’t keep his eyes off them.
“So what’s with the feet?”
Seymour was a bit stunned by the question. He looked straight into Artie’s eyes, his face going from pale to pink and back again, blinked several times, then looked away, not answering.
“Hey, it’s okay by me,” Artie said, moving his shoulders as if to shrug it off.
The rest of their meal was eaten in silence. As they neared the steps to their building, Seymour turned to Artie: “I’d like to show you something,” he said. “Come over for just a moment.”
Artie had never been in Seymour’s apartment and at the moment, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.
Seymour knew that look of hesitancy. He had experienced it before he and Rodney had become friends. “It’s okay,” Seymour reassured him quietly. “It will just be for a minute…we can even leave the door open, if you want.”
So up the stairs the two climbed. Artie, several steps behind Seymour, not knowing what to expect nor what to say. It was all the more startling when Seymour opened his door, revealing the wall of small cubicles that ran from floor to ceiling – each filled with a different color — bits of string, pieces of wool and parts of unraveled socks –– all arranged in neat orderly colors – hue-by-hue –– a wall full.
Artie didn’t know what to make of it so he just stood silently and stared.
“I use the colors to make pictures,” Seymour explained slowly. “It’s a little bit like painting only I use colored string, wool, yarn, whatever — that’s why I look down at people’s feet – to look at their socks. Sometimes..if they’re starting to unravel…I can kinda bump them with the toe of my shoe…. and their socks will fall down a little bit…and..then I can step on pieces of the yarn and…they’ll…you know..unravel some more and…I can get some of the yarn..you think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
Artie shook his head, more in disbelief at the wall of color than at what his neighbor was haltingly telling him. “You some kind of artist, right?”
Seymour nodded. “Want to see some of my pictures?”
Before Artie could respond, Seymour began bringing out small pictures from nooks and crannies, under his bed, in his closet. They were tiny little tableaus of birds, flowers, portraits, seascapes that Seymour had created via his crewel embroidery.
You know what your problem is, Ruthie? You knit these masterpieces and, sweetheart, I know masterpieces when I see them and what….give them to your nieces and nephews? They don’t even know that they’re wearing something that looks just like a Monet. What you need is to meet someone you can make one of your masterpieces for. Somebody who’ll appreciate it…like a guy, you know..” Edie nudged Ruthie with her elbow one day as the two sat on a bench in the little tree-lined alcove near the Museum of Modern Art. On warm days they would take their knitting and lunches outside.
“Maybe you should try the personal ads…” Edie offered. “It couldn’t hurt. “
Ruthie shook her head. She wasn’t much for dating, let alone someone who advertised in a newspaper.
But Edie was insistent. “We could look in the Village Voice…now that’s where you can meet some really interesting men…like artists… you know…I’ve met several who were artists and so could you.”
Ruthie sat back and stared down at the sunflowers that were growing up the side of what would eventually be a pair of leggings. “Couldn’t hurt to just read them,” she thought to herself.
What you need is a girlfriend,” Artie said one day to Seymour.
“I don’t think so…you know…I don’t think I could meet anyone who..you know..I mean..what I do..” Except for Artie and an occasional visit to Rodney, Seymour kept pretty much to himself. Between his job at the book store and his embroidery, he rarely even spoke to many people. “Besides, women my age..at least.. available ones…nice ones…are as rare as that blue-colored string I need to finish my seascape.”
“Hey, you can do what I do…I got a lot of nice women friends..” It was true. Many a Saturday night, Artie put on a clean white shirt and blue pants, lots of his favorite cologne, and went off whistling. And sometimes, Seymour knew he didn’t come home until the next day.
“What…what do you do?….I mean, to meet women?”
“The personal ads..I meet ’em through the personal ads. The Village Voice has the best…”
“What do you mean, the personal ads?” Seymour was not very familiar with such things.
“In the back of the paper, people write up little things about themselves to see if they can meet other people with the same likes and stuff. I’ve met a couple of real winners. I like the Village Voice cause the women who advertise in there seem to be more open to..you know..more understanding about your past just as long as you’re okay now.”
And so it began. “I don’t even know how to do this,” Seymour said over his shoulder to his friend. He was sitting at the kitchen table in Artie’s apartment, a very old manual typewriter in front of him. There were copies of the Village Voice strewn around the room.
“You gotta think about who’d you like to meet. You don’t want anybody real young –– you know –– you just want to meet a nice lady who likes stuff like you. Think about it and use those initial things – look down at the bottom of the page –– see ISO stands for ‘in search of’ and swf means you want a single white female. Hey you can put any color if it don’t matter to you. But you just got to say what you want and use those letters. Understand?”
Seymour sighed and began to type. ‘ISO: creative, seasoned swf to share special times and possible ltr.’ “What do you think, Artie?” Artie read over his friend’s shoulder. “It’s okay. The word seasoned makes me think about food, though.”
“I can change it to older but I don’t want to end up with…you know….an old lady who paints flowers, or something….But I want to have her write me letters first…just a couple so I can think about it some more…in case I don’t want to go through with it……” Seymour was already having second thoughts about the idea of meeting someone. He wasn’t sure if he could do what Artie did.
“…Please write to box 601 and tell me about yourself.” Seymour added.
Artie pulled the piece of paper out of the typewriter before Seymour could do anything else, folded it up, and stuck it in an envelope that he had already addressed and stamped. “Let’s see what you get,” he said tucking the letter into his jacket pocket and motioning for Seymour to follow him out.
So let’s take a look at what’s in here,” Edie said. She had a copy of the latest Village Voice sitting spread out on the top of her desk. Ruthie just shook her head. “Don’t let anyone see you,” she whispered. “We’ll take it with us at lunch.” Ruthie wasn’t in any hurry to start man-hunting, and Edie was becoming more and more insistent that she give it a whirl.
The moment they sat down on their favorite bench, Edie reached into her knitting bag and retrieved the paper. She opened it immediately to the personals and began scanning while Ruthie busied herself with her newest picture – the complicated Van Gogh, Starry Night –– it was going to be a hooded cape. She had even sketched out how the stars would fall around the hood and down her shoulders.
“Oh my God, Ruthie, get a load of this one,” Edie exclaimed as if she had struck a mother lode. “ISO: creative, seasoned swf (single white female) to share special times and possible ltr (long term relationship).”
Ruthie’s eyes widened. “Seasoned … you mean like old?”
“The guy obviously doesn’t want some dumb art student…that’s all…”
“Or else …” Ruthie’s voice trailed off to an almost whisper …”maybe he wants someone who … you know … really knows how to do it …”
Edie looked at Ruthie’s very red face. Not only was she a virgin when it came to the world of art and museums, but Ruthie Gallagher was also a nice Catholic girl. “I think he means someone who’s older, not a kid, that’s all,” Edie said saying a quiet prayer to herself at the same time. “But he just wants you to write and tell him about yourself.”
And so there are several weeks of correspondence before they actually get up enough courage, with the gentle prodding from their friends, to meet for the first time – for coffee at Velselka’s.
Seymour is, as usual, busy looking down at people’s socks when a pair of brilliantly colored leggings comes into view – they are the colors of the rainbow. Seymour has never seen anything like these before. His eyes follow the rings up the legs to see a woman in her early forties with big blue eyes and strands of reddish hair tucked back into a not-too-neat bun. Over her shoulder, she is carrying a large woven bag that is brimming over with balls of yarn, even more hues than he has in his cubicles at home.
“Hello,” she says, her voice almost a whisper. “I’m Ruthie Gallagher.”
Seymour Kurtz’s eyes lit up. He looked back down at her extraordinary stockings, then slowly rose to greet her. “I’m Seymour,” he replied, beaming.
Dorothy Spencer lives and works in Princeton. This is her first attempt at fiction. She has published two non-fiction books: TOTAL DESIGN: FURNITURE BY ARCHITECTS published by Chronicle Books and FOUND OBJECT ART published by Schiffer Books. “I have been involved in publishing mainly as an editor for approximately 15 years, working for Billboard Publications, Van Nostrand Reinhold, and Read/Write Press,” she says. "I am currently a literary agent for the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency specializing in illustrated, non-fiction books. In my spare time I write short stories and novels for fun and mostly my friends’ entertainment.”