My obsession with religious art stems from the time I spent working as a writer for Geoffrey Holder and his wife, a toast of Paris– Carmen de Lavallade.
The un-cola man, the voice behind the 7-Up commercial, paid me off the books to sit alongside his paintings and sculptures and “take dictation”.
Geoffrey wanted to assemble an alphabetized telephone directory. He sat in a battered reclining chair and read off names and numbers to me. I typed the names into Carmen’s laptop. Geoffrey always wanted a little black book, he said, and it was our task to painstakingly go through piles and piles of tiny pieces of paper on which he had scribbled the names of people like Ruby Dee, Phylicia Rashad, and Bill Cosby and produce a directory that Geoffrey could later refer to if needed. Most often, Geoffrey explained, he kept all those numbers in his head and I was not permitted to ask how he did it.
Geoffrey also paid me to work with his wife Carmen who was writing a play. It was my assignment to sit with her, type out ideas and read them back to her.
I spent three evenings a week in the summer of 2000 working with the Broadway couple. One evening when I walked off the elevator, right into their livingroom, Geoffrey greeted me at the sliding metal gate that separated the shaft from their home and told me he had a surprise. He invited me to dine with he and Carmen in the loft. Geoffrey cooked a fish dish in their kitchen far away, at the other end of the loft space, behind stacks and stacks of huge murals and paintings that packed their block-long home.
Carmen and me sipped wine. I didn’t have much to say. I was always so nervous especially when alone with Carmen. Geoffrey is so protective of her. She is so beautiful, even in her seventies and everybody knows, at least in Geoffrey’s circle, that his wife once danced with Josephine Baker in Paris and she is a living legend.
Geoffrey had been working on a new project near the area of the loft that served as their dinning room. While sitting at what was a plastic, outdoor patio table and chairs, I turned my feather light chair more in the direction of Carmen and the paintings of the Garden of Eden that served as the backdrop to my star-studded supper.
“Do you ever tire of Geoffrey’s art scattered all over your home?” I asked Carmen, pointing to the luxurious artwork of a naked Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam was white.
“Eventually you realize it’s not worth trying to clean this place. I love it like this,” she explained. “Have you ever been to Paris?” She asked.
Moments later, Geoffrey returned with our dishes. Geoffrey kept insisting on more wine. I insisted on just one glass.
After our meal, Carmen excused herself. I helped Geoffrey with the dishes and we returned to the area of the loft where we often worked together.
“Tonight we start a play,” he explained. “I want to work with you like you work with Carmen. I need to hear things back to me. Can you do it?”
“Of course,” I promised.
He was tickled when he watched me type as fast as he could speak.
“You are like a pianist at a keyboard,” he said.
The setting of Geoffrey’s play was in the Garden of Eden. He was writing in the voice of God. He was stuck at a certain point. He ran out of ideas and asked me for my advice–
“What’s another way to say on the seventh day God rested?”
“He took a breather,” I replied.
Geoffrey laughed in the same voice that he used during his 1970’s 7-Up commercial.
“Can I use that?” he asked me, as if I were Josephine Baker.
“Of course. I’d be honored.” I giggled.
As far as I know, the play hasn’t made it to Broadway yet.
The day after I was discharged from the psychiatric hospital in 2002, I called Geoffrey to tell him the bad news.
“I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia,” I told Geoffrey. “I lost it.”
“Oh darling, you must come over. When can I see you again. You must have been fierce! Tell me, what did you have on?”
I was in no position to laugh. But I did and it hurt. I laughed again. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that when I was hearing voices it was his that echoed in my head. Was Geoffrey really God as he had portrayed in his paintings?
I’m certain that it was his voice that I heard. It was far too deep for him to even comprehend, I thought.
“Don’t worry about it, darling. You are seeing what so very few ever see in life. You are reading from the book of life now. Nothing will ever be the same. You’ll get used to it. Can you come work for me this evening?”
“I’m so tired Geoffrey. I can’t.”
He was angry. I could tell. But I hurt from head to toe and I really couldn’t type anymore. Even I needed to rest.
“It’s alright, darling. It’s alright. I need you. Get better.”