Matsys' Ugly Duchess Painting

She had taken me to court, so there was a distinct lack of cordiality when we ran into each other on the elevator. On the day after our adjudication, she got on at the fourth floor and I decided to try a pleasant overture: “Hello, Jayne,” I ventured, but she averted her eyes.  All right, I thought, if that’s how you want it.   Her complaint had been Unnecessary noise.         The judge, a woman, had asked me: “Mr. Meyer, is there any reason you have to play your piano after eleven in the evening?” I felt like saying, Look, Judge, you can’t schedule musical ideas to arrive before eleven pm. I’m a composer, and if I can’t work my ideas out on the keyboard I could very well lose them by morning.Two hundred dollars fine,” ruled the judge. “And if you come before me again, I’ll double that.” Jayne had found an ally in female solidarity. Though I doubted that being female was doing Jayne much good. She was in her mid-forties, stocky, with dark, bushy brows. Her face was set in a determined, I’ll-get-through-this, expression. I was reminded of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. I never saw anyone accompany her in or out of our building on West 57th street, certainly not any men. Jayne worked as a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital, just up the street on Ninth Avenue. Maybe she was warmer with her patients than she appeared on the outside. It was as if she was encased in a sheath of suspicion and negativity. How bizarre then, to come home at two-thirty one snowy January morning and find her sitting alone and vulnerable, in the corner of our small lobby. She seemed distraught; her hair, usually in a neat, black bun, was hanging over her face, and her eye make-up was smeared. Strangest of all, her naked calves protruded from beneath a navy bathrobe…and she was barefoot. “Jayne,” I cried, involuntarily. “What are you doing down here?” Bill, the night elevator man, threw me a significant glance. “She’s been like that since ten-thirty.” Jayne didn’t seem to react to the fact that we were talking about her. She seemed totally disoriented. “Jayne,” I said, kneeling before her, “what’s the matter?” She stared at me without seeming to recognize me. I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, floating in the stream. I held her blank but intense eyes for a few seconds, and then she said: “If you come upstairs, you can hear them.” “Who, Jayne?” “The rats.” Jayne’s eyes went funny with fear. “They’re in the walls.” I had a shivery moment. Rats in the walls. It was like something out of Poe. “How do you know, Jayne?” “I can hear them. They’re scratching.” Suddenly she stood up. “I’ll show you.” she said, reaching for my hand. “Come upstairs, you can hear them.” This was the first time she had touched me; I had the instinct to recoil, but at the same time a wave of empathy washed over me and, notwithstanding our courtroom hostility, I found myself feeling sorry for this suddenly helpless woman who had been victimized by…what? A chemical imbalance? Paranoia? An epileptic seizure? We stepped inside the elevator, Bill closed the door, drew the gate and we rose to the fourth floor. Her apartment opened directly onto the living room, just like mine. Boom, and you were inside. No foyer, no hallway, you were simply there. There was a standing lamp, two table lamps plus an overhead fixture, and Jayne had every light blazing. Bill stood respectfully outside the open apartment door as Jayne led me to the sofa and pointed to the wall above it. “Hear them?” she asked me. “Can you hear them? They’re in there.” I stayed motionless for a long moment, not daring to breathe. I couldn’t hear anything. I turned to Jayne. “Are they anywhere else? Maybe the kitchen?” “No, the bathroom, I heard them in the bathroom.” I let her lead me into the bathroom and stood by the tub. She pulled the shower curtain aside and gestured towards the pink tiles. “Keep still,” she said, “you’ll hear them.” Again there was nothing. “Jayne, I’m sorry –I don’t hear them.” Her eyes rolled wildly about the bathroom. “Scratch scratch, scratch scratch, they’re in there!” It was then I decided her condition was beyond any aid I could give. She needed professional help. I heard Bill’s voice come in from the hall. ”I have a call, I’m going down.” “Just a minute—“ I yelled. I turned to Jayne. “Where are your shoes?” She frowned. “What?” “Put on some shoes, Jayne, we’ll go and get help.” Her eyes fixed on me with a light of hope and then, suddenly obedient, she left the bathroom and disappeared into another room. I realized she’d been waiting for an authoritative voice to tell her what to do. It was ironic, given our history, that the voice should be mine. Jayne returned, wearing her bedroom slippers. She looked at me expectantly. “You have your keys?” I asked her. She nodded. “Okay then, let’s go.” I led her into the hall, where Bill had been waiting with the elevator door open. “I’ve got a call,” he repeated. “Two seconds,” I told him. “Lock up, Jayne.” Jayne turned the key in the top lock, the bottom lock, and we joined Bill. He gave me a quick, quizzical look as the car descended, but I couldn’t have answered his unspoken question. I had no idea what I was going to do with Jayne. As we reached the lobby, it hit me. I needed to get her to a doctor, get her some kind of sedation. Maybe she would need serious therapy eventually, but for tonight she had to conquer her irrational panic. I guided her through the abbreviated vestibule and stopped at the door. “Wait here,” I told her. I stepped out onto chilly fifty-seventh street. Three-oh-five in the morning, a lone taxi cruising slowly towards me on the wide, wet street, with its yellow light. I waved him to the curb and ran to the window on the driver’s side:     “I have a lady who needs to get to Roosevelt Hospital.” I said. “You know where the Emergency entrance is?” He nodded, and I ran back to the vestibule door to fetch Jayne. “Okay, Jayne,” I said, “we’re gonna get you some help.” It was slow going, Jayne would not be hurried. Twenty-five feet from the building to the street, it took an eternity. Shuffle, shuffle, one slipper-clad foot after the other, in the slush. I got in first, it seemed easier, but when Jayne was too disoriented to pull the door shut, I had to hop out and do it for her. “Are we going to the exterminator?” she asked me. “We’re going to get you some help.” Jayne didn’t appear to recognize the emergency room of the hospital in which she spent her work week. There was the usual complement of damaged New Yorkers slumped in their plastic chairs, awaiting treatment for knife wounds, drug overdoses, seizures. The woman behind the window asked us to have a seat and told us someone would be with us shortly. “This woman is one of your employees,” I told her. “Just have a seat.” I sat with Jayne for ninety minutes. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. This is a woman who took you to court and would’ve been glad to see you pay a heavy fine. She’d love to see you evicted, for God’s sake. You don’t owe her anything. Why are you sitting with her at four in the morning? Finally an intern in green scrubs called us from the doorway. I took Jayne’s arm and walked her over to where he stood. “This is Miss Harlan,” I said to him. “She’s experiencing a little disorientation.” I went back to the window to clear up the question of Jayne’s insurance. “It’s all right,” said the lady behind the glass. “I found her in our data-base. She’s covered.” She glanced at Jayne’s file. “What’s her problem?” Well, how to define this?    “She’s hallucinating.” “Are you a relative?” “No,” I said, “we live in the same building, that’s all. I don’t really know her.” “Really.” She looked at me for a moment. “She’s lucky to have a friend like you.” I smiled, thinking, You should have seen us in court.