The Audacious Magpie
A Novel in Real-Time
July 14, 2014
Gus and Lenny
Lenny was the first week-long guest of Gus's Living Room.
During the first night of her stay, we took tally of The Big Ample gifts:
14 Valentines on the train
98 philosophical feathers
40 birthday cards
24 springtime daisies
70 end-of-winter lollipops
5 thank you cards to strangers
13 gifts to neighbors
57 poems in books
24 workout inspiration books
14 Memorial Day characters
54 penny-into-quarter tricks
Lenny added up the totals. "437."
We were still far short of the goal of 714.
I leaned back into the couch with a sigh. "I'm so sorry, Magpie!"
Lenny shook her head and rubbed her hands while examining the list. "Not at all. Now we'll finish together."
She leaned back as well, looking to the ceiling for inspiration. We both stared into the stuccoed swirls hoping to find a path in the maze of plaster.
Lenny spoke first. "What about quotes of love for New York sprinkled throughout the city? We can put them everywhere and ask people to consider why they love this place."
I nodded. "100%."
On Monday morning I found Lenny in the kitchen leaning out the window. She took in a deep breath of the rain-heavy air. "There's magic in today. I can feel it."
I chuckled and put on the kettle. I'd taken work off to celebrate the day. This would be The Big Ample finale.
In the long tunnel to the train we walked a few paces behind a young couple. As they stepped around the ever-present debris, we watched as a wind current lifted a plastic bag and carried it next to them at their exact pace. Like a polyethylene stray dog, it heeled obediently as they strolled to the subway.
They looked down in surprise and then looked back at us. Can you believe this? asked their smiles. The bag just waited patiently for them to continue. We both laughed and they shook their heads.
"Magic," Lenny whispered.
We exited the train at 34th Street. As we walked toward the Empire State Building, a group of office workers ambled toward us. Just in front of them strutted a white pigeon in lockstep with their speed. It led them like a miniature band leader, keeping time with its syncopated cooing.
Lenny elbowed me gently and smiled. "Magic."
Then we passed a duo of high school students planting gummy worms in the dirt of a sidewalk tree.
"They're up to some magic of their own," Lenny beamed.
We started the gift giving then, taping the quotes everywhere -- on light posts and parking meters, inside telephone booths and on fire hydrants. We put them on subway handrails and on the backs of benches. It was a confetti spray of New York admiration.
After blanketing Midtown in praise, we sat to rest at Lincoln Center's fountain. Lenny dipped her hand in the water and then gave a start, splashing the water in her surprise.
"Gus! Our last gift!"
I raised my eyebrows, beckoning her to go on.
She stood up to deliver her idea. "We have to put the Pappy poem in a bottle and send it into the Hudson."
"Yes!" I jumped up to join her and we headed west.
It was easy to gather the materials as we made our way to the river.
As we stood on the bank, the current lapped thirstily at the rocks. The bottle gleamed in the late afternoon light as Lenny launched it into the puddle-brown waves. It was surreal to think we had navigated those waters in wetsuits only a year prior.
"Full circle," she whispered as the water carried the bottle away.
"Full circle." I agreed. "It's been hell of a loop-de-loop."
She smiled. "100%."
We walked along the river toward Boat Basin to celebrate with dinner there. As we rounded a curve in the path, we noticed an old man crouched near the water several feet ahead. He was holding up a bottle to the sunlight.
Had our message really been washed ashore so quickly?
We approached casually, hoping to witness him discover the gift. As we drew nearer, however, he drew back his arm and tossed the bottle into the water like a skipping stone.
We stopped a few feet from him, dumbfounded. The man noticed us and asked nonchalantly, "Have you ever sent a message in a bottle before?"
We exchanged nervous glances. Had he seen us upstream? Were we being reprimanded?
Without waiting for a response, he looked toward the Hudson and continued. "I throw one in the river each year on this day -- July 14th."
Without taking her eyes from him, Lenny put her hand on my forearm as if to steady herself. This wasn't possible.
We took a few small steps nearer as he continued explaining in subdued tones. "My dearest friend died on this day and this is how I pay tribute to his memory. He loved to write poetry and I always send off one of his poems and $714. I hope if people see the money, they won't just toss the bottle aside."
Lenny stepped closer and transferred her hand from my forearm to the gentleman's.
With a confident whisper, she began to recite the Pappy poem.
"The absolute brilliance
of what it means to be
rosy-cheeked and breathing
has settled onto my heart like the gentlest snow."
The man's eyes were saucers. Lenny continued.
"Only through an altered lens
a majestic new kaleidoscope
has the privilege of this position
been forever seared in my heart."
The man wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and then laid it over Lenny's. He finished his friend's words.
"That I am human
with all the follies and fondnesses
stumbles and strides
My heart beats in rhythm
with this marvelous symphony
of so many other beating hearts
- a virtuoso matched by none."
Lenny took a step closer and they embraced.
He broke into a sob. "I can't believe it."
She stepped back and shook her head, too moved for words herself. The man stepped forward and gave me a hug. "Lenny knew there was magic in today," I whispered, half to myself.
He drew back in shock and held me by the shoulders. "Did you say Lenny?"
I nodded and placed a hand on my friend's shoulder.
He looked at Lenny and then back at me as though searching a magician for the hidden ace. Finding no trick, he wiped at another tear. "That was my friend's name," he said in disbelief. "Lenny. Leonard Hornsby."
"Tell us about him," Lenny requested with her newly-found voice.
The man's face brightened immediately. He laced each of his arms through our elbows and we started walking along the asphalt path as if following the yellow brick road.
"We were so similar, Lenny and I," he explained. "Same height, both with big noses, both with brown and -- eventually -- salt-and-pepper hair. We were both lawyers, both loved tennis, both members of the neighborhood council where we raised our families on the Upper West Side. But Lenny was the ever-optimist while I was the pessimist. We were so like two sides of a coin that friends called us Jekyll and Hyde.
"I always grumbled about the city with its too many people on run-down trains rushing to get off the subway and jostle each other along trash-lined boulevards.
"Lenny, on the other hand, was madly in love with New York. He believed it is only place where you can live the full color spectrum of human life. Green, blue, red and orange are enough to paint the landscape in other cities, he'd say, but in New York you graduate to the richer palette of magenta, azure, chartreuse and cyan.
"The oily blacks and grimy browns make the sunshine oranges and firefly yellows all the more vivid and luminous here, he claimed. This city is like Van Gogh's Starry, Starry Night. It is the contradiction of color that lends the vibrancy and keeps us entranced."
We both nodded. "So true," Lenny agreed with her namesake's perspective.
"May I ask a rather forward question?" asked the man.
"Of course," we said in chorus.
"What did you do with the money? I've always wondered how it would be spent. I never dreamed I'd have the chance to ask."
Lenny and I looked across him at each other. How fitting a project The Big Ample had been in light of Leonard Hornsby's view of the city! Lenny narrated the timeline of finding the bottle, deciphering the poem and finally launching the gift-giving spree. She described the music of the morning at Bethesda's fountain where she had arranged the paper cranes. She laughed in memory of surprising the woman on the subway with daisies on the first day of spring. I showed him photos of the characters in the 14th Avenue subway stop for Memorial Day and pictures we'd taken that day of posting the quotes.
The man dried his eyes again, his smile glowing brighter than the now-setting sun. "Leonard would have adored The Big Ample. What a gift you've given us both."
Lenny was again the first to hug him. I couldn't help but think that he must have reminded her of Gramps a little. It was a gift in itself to see her light up so bright.
I hugged him next, thanking him for sharing Leonard's story. "He was a great man," his friend reflected. "He really made his life a stunning work of art."
We had reached the Boat Basin then and it was time to say goodbye. A few moments after we parted Lenny stopped. "We never asked his name!" She said as she turned to run after him.
I watched from a distance as they spoke briefly and hugged again.
She came running back. "You'll never believe it," she said, wide-eyed and breathless. "His name is Augustus, but everyone calls him Gus."
We walked up the stairs to the restaurant in silence and found seats on the terrace overlooking the Hudson.
"Let's see if they have Pappy Van Winkle bourbon," Lenny winked. I could only nod.
After a few moments of silence, I asked a question I truly hoped she could answer. "What does it all mean?" I needed to know. "Please don't say 'It's magic.'"
Lenny laughed and leaned back in her chair. She spoke softly as she looked across the water to Jersey. "It's like Gran always says, Gus. Life will give you signposts along the way to help you know you're on the right path."
"So The Big Ample project was exactly what we were meant to do with the money?" I puzzled aloud.
Lenny shook her head and reflected a moment. "No. I think it's bigger than that. I think it means that we're just where we're meant to be right now -- here in this city of a zillion colors. Here with our palettes, painting our masterpieces.