The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery

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9780618711895: The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery

In a strangely fascinating memoir that could be described as Middle American gothic, Michael Rips delves into the secret past of his family and their seemingly sleepy Nebraska hometown, exposing the eccentricities and surprises that lurk below the surface. Rips learns that his father was raised in a notorious brothel rumored to have Mob ties. From here, the revelations get stranger, with stories of a dead man who fell through a ceiling, a man who wears a prosthetic penis on his boot to attract the ladies, a homeless millionaire, and a chicken-abusing adolescent. Intertwining past and present, this disarming, absorbing memoir is framed by Rips’s search to identify a woman who posed years earlier for one of his father’s paintings.

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About the Author:

Michael Rips is a fifth-generation Nebraska native. A graduate of Oxford University, he served as a law clerk to a Supreme Court justice, is now an adviser to several museums and foundations, and, when not writing in coffee shops around New York City, continues to practice criminal litigation. He is the author of Pasquale’s Nose: Idle Days in an Italian Town. He lives at the Chelsea Hotel with his wife and daughter.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE WOMAN IN THE BASEMENT

1.

A woman set a coffee before me, and I thought of the first time that I saw a woman fly.

2.

Among quiet neighbors, we were the quietest. Father came home every day at the same time, greeted my mother, settled on the couch, and slept; occasionally he would sit in a chair. In either case he would sleep.
At six-thirty he would be called to dinner. After dinner he would return to the couch. Mother would sit next to him. When he finished reading, he would go to his room and sleep.
My father was the appreciative product of his own privileged life. Born in Nebraska, he was Republican, affluent, and content.
As to his relationship with my mother, I heard not a single argument between them. They were respectful and admiring.

3.

Mother was sitting on the steps in the hall. In front of her was a box of letters. She pointed to a room in the back. There in tandem on the bureau were his belongings. This was the purpose of my return to remove what I cared to have. My father had died several years before, and Mother was moving.
But the objects in that room gave o¤ no trace of my father. He fit so smoothly into the order of things, the circuitus spiritualis, that he had passed on nothing that was not more perfectly expressed by something nearby; if he had an emotion or thought that was individual to him, it lacked the power of emanation.
I gathered the few things of his and my own that I had decided to take back to New York. Needing a box, my wife, Sheila, and I went into the basement.
After a few minutes, I found a small container and then retraced my steps.
Sheila asked me about a black portfolio that had been slipped behind a cabinet. She pulled it out and laid it on the floor; the portfolio was held together with black ribbons.
An arm, a leg, a torso, another arm, a torso, a head came out of the portfolio. A naked black woman.
Sheets and sheets of a naked black woman, and below each the initials of my father.
On the other side of the basement wall was a small room used to develop black-and-white photographs. Scribbled on the wall of that room was this:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sin, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied. . . .” Whitman.

Mother was preparing dinner. For as long as I could remember my family had a cook. The ablest was Mary. But even the worst were capable of being taught, and my mother did a very good job of that. They were different from the meals I would get at our neighbors’.
Claire was one of our neighbors and I enjoyed visiting her. One evening at Claire’s, we heard her brother, Ronald, singing Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from the musical Oklahoma! That was unusual because Ronald had for years sat quietly in his room. I imagined that he was writing or composing or juggling and that one day I would hear that he had won a prize.
Claire went straight to his room. She wanted to share in his happiness.
What she saw was a happy Ronald lying on his back rotating a live chicken on his manliness, singing Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry when I take you out in the surrey. . . .” We made our way back to Claire’s room. Minutes later Ronald passed the door.
He was upset.
Recounting her last minutes, he explained that in enjoying a chicken the greatest pleasure comes when the chicken’s neck is broken, causing a death shiver” that Ronald found impossible to duplicate” suggesting that Ronald had only settled on chickens after experimenting with other animals.
Several days later, I found myself back at Claire’s. It was the late afternoon and Ronald’s mother had returned to the house with a friend who was visiting Omaha from the East Coast. Claire’s mother invited me to join the family for dinner.
When Claire and I came to the table, everyone was there but Ronald. He was still in his room.
Claire’s mother brought out a delicious first course. Before we had finished it, Ronald arrived. His mood was good.
Having cleared the table, Claire’s mother returned from the kitchen with the tetrazzini. Then I saw it. Ronald’s face rippled. There was only one conclusion: we were about to eat his lover.
As I reflected on this, the woman from the East Coast, who was sitting to my left, placed a good-sized portion of tetrazzini on her plate. Believing that one is obligated to warn one’s dinner companion that she is about to consume a dish that has been inseminated by another guest at the table, I leaned toward the lady from the East Coast and whispered, The chicken was murdered.” There was no response.
With Ronald’s lover nnow inside her mouth, I bent down, pretending to have dropped my napkin, and turning my head upwards from next to her knee, whispered, There’s semen in the chicken.” That did iiiiit.
In retrospect it has occurred to me that I’d simply substituted an obvious observation with an obvious and repulsive observation, and the woman’s inability to finish her meal had less to do with the chicken than with me. Ronald had succeeded in making me more revolting than Ronald himself.
I would like to say that Ronald was now in the musical theater, but the truth is that I do not know what happened to Ronald.

We left Omaha on a Sunday. On the way to the airport, we passed the Civic Auditorium. It is where I saw the woman (Miss Rietta) fly.

4.

In New York, I went back to sitting in a coffee shop on Ninth Avenue.
A blond woman approached my table. She was from the seminary. She was a friend of the Bearded Priest and asked me if I’d seen him. She was concerned.
Before becoming the Bearded Priest, he had raised bird dogs and before that worked in a lumberyard. As an Episcopalian priest, he had lived among the spiritists of Haiti and now spent his time reading Emmanuel Levinas and fishing o¤ a pier on Fourteenth Street. I had taken note of him because of his resemblance to Whitman and because of Levinas.
A Lithuanian Jew who had moved to Germany in the late 1920s, Levinas attended Husserl’s last semester of teaching and Heidegger’s first. Levinas’s translation of Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations brought phenomenology to the French and specifically to Sartre. During the war, Levinas was taken prisoner by the Germans and placed in a concentration camp.
Levinas survived the war. His family did not. It was at this time that Levinas was introduced to the Talmud, and it was to the Talmud that he devoted much of his writing.
I told the woman that I’d not seen the Bearded Priest.
She sat down. She was attractively built, her face was a deep pale, her eyes soft and alarmed. We began to speak. She told me that she had been brought to the priesthood by accident, a chance reading of the story of Saul.
My father had told me this story.
He was not known for talking. Even to his sons he spoke little. But this story he had told me, this story among a handful of others, randomly offered and separated by long stretches of time. Some of these stories I remembered, some I did not. Some of my father I remembered; some I did not.
I asked the woman from the seminary to retell the story. She did and as she did the late afternoon light withdrew and all was quiet.
The story of Saul is found in the first book of Samuel.
It begins with the elders of Israel approaching the aging prophet Samuel with the request that he name a king. The Israelites, weak and under siege, were concerned that when Samuel died, they would be left without a leader. Samuel put the request to the Lord.
The Lord warned the Israelites against a king.
The Israelites insisted.
Granting their request, the Lord chose Saul, a modest young man from the smallest clan of the smallest tribe.
Saul immediately proved himself, leading the Israelites to victory over their enemies. Before his battle with the Amalekites, Saul had received a specific instruction from God: the Amalekites were to be entirely destroyed,” including the women and children and cattle.
But Saul did not listen to the Lord. Having defeated the Amalekites, he spared the life of the Amalekite king, Agag, and the best of the Amalekites’ animals.
When Samuel discovered what Saul had done, Samuel scolded Saul. Saul returned that Agag was in the custody of the Israelites and that the animals were to be used as sacrificial offerings to God. Samuel cut Saul short: Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” Leaving no doubt as to where he stood on the matter, Samuel had Agag dragged out and executed.
Displeased with Saul, God sent an Evil Spirit to torment him. At the same time, God instructed Samuel to summon David, whom God had selected as the next king of Israel. Jealous of David ( Saul has his thousand, David his ten thousand”) and tormented by the Evil Spirit, Saul attempted to slay David. While David was in bed with his wife, Saul’s men entered David’s house. David’s wife urged David to escape, replacing David in the bed with a teraph topped with goat’s hair. The substitution allowed David the time to flee.
The story ends with Saul leading the Israelites in battle against the Philistines. As the battle neared, Saul, desperate to know whether the Israelites would prevail, found himself cut o¤ from the voices that could assist him: Samuel was dead, Saul’s dreams revealed nothing, and there was a standing interdiction (issued by Saul himself) against seers. Defying his own decree, he approached the Witch of Endor.
Saul’s plan was to have the Witch find Samuel and bring him back to the living. Saul would then consult Samuel on the battle with the Philistines.
When the Witch recognized Saul, Saul promised the Witch that she would not be punished for violating the law against necromancy. So assured, the Witch retrieved Samuel from the dead.
Samuel began by chastising Saul for past offenses. As to the battle with the Philistines, Samuel informed Saul that neither he nor his sons would survive. The next day, Saul, surrounded by the Philistines, impaled himself on his sword. The Philistines removed Saul’s head.

At the point in the story when Saul approached the Witch of Endor, the voice of the woman in the café was no longer the voice of the woman in the café. My father was finishing the story and by the time he had finished the story, I knew that I would be leaving New York and returning to Omaha. I would find the black woman in the picture and through her find my father. I would retrieve him from the dead.

5.

In Omaha, I phoned detectives. After talking to three or four, I set up an appointment with Frank Williams. Williams, according to the other detectives, had ways of getting information that no one else had.
To meet Williams, I traversed the part of Omaha that had been built since the war the shopping malls, the strip malls, the stores the size of malls, the car lots, the fast-food restaurants, all close to the earth, close to its color emerging upon that neighborhood that is older, blacker, and lighter. I stood, finally, outside a locked bar. From a surveillance camera mounted near the door, Williams watched me.
The door opened.
The interior was dark. The door was locked behind me.
A black man led me to a stool in the empty bar. He poured me a drink.
I explained why I was there.
Williams asked me to follow him. He took me to a place where we could speak without being overheard.
In the basement of the bar was a room with three tables. Passing through that room, Williams removed a set of keys and unlocked a door. On the other side of the door were a desk and a series of monitors.
After reviewing the monitors, all of which were trained on the empty parking lot, he questioned me.
Have you talked to anyone about this?” A few.
What do they know?” Nothing.
Did your father have a best friend?” Yes.
Have you talked to him?” No. He is sick and recognizes no one, including himself. He’s in no position to help.” I’ll be the judge of that.” Williams checked the surveillance monitors.
He’s completely unconscious,” I insisted.
Not so fast!” Not so fast?” Have you heard of the brain machine?” No.” I’ve used it to solve many cases.” A brain machine?” The machine is in Iowa. It goes into your brain and reads thoughts you didn’t know were there. You can’t lie to it, can’t fool it; and once you’ve answered it, you can’t undo it.” Williams checked his watch.
Come back at three and don’t eat.”

When I returned to the bar, I picked up Reggie, a friend who had experience with detectives.
Williams had been to a funeral and was in a good mood.
Wait for me downstairs.” Reggie and I sat at one of the tables outside Williams’s office.
Williams appeared at our table.
As he sat down, a door opened at the other end of the room and a naked woman walked out. She was followed by another woman. Also naked. And then another. There were six women in all all black and all naked.
After a brief discussion among the women, one began to move around the room. She was five foot five or six and weighed three hundred pounds.
At the center of the room, she stood still for several minutes as if readying herself for an oration. Then, suddenly, she flipped herself upside down. As she balanced on her head, two men strode from the shadows. One took a position on her left, the other on her right. Bending forward, they stared fixedly into the fullness of her womanhood.
Williams, who had disappeared, arrived at our table with a platter of food.
We were joined by the naked women. We all began to eat.
Perhaps this was Williams’s idea of a lineup, not having realized that the woman I was looking for would be in her seventies. On the other hand, he may have thought that I was the one looking for a black woman and that the story about my father was a coded request. Or this may just be what Williams did in the afternoon.
As we drove from the bar, Reggie offered this: Williams knows the woman. He’s got upside-down women, he’s got brain machines and trays of food everything but the person you’re looking for, and the reason he doesn’t have her and doesn’t ask you any questions about her is that he knows who she is. Williams knows everything about your dad and his woman and he’s protecting them.” And what,” I asked, do you think he knows?” Easy. Your dad was taking the women from his factory to his office and painting them; they went along with it because he was paying for it or he was having sex with them or he was paying them and having sex. He got the factory from his folks and decided to fill it with colored women who looked good with their clothes o¤. It was part plantation, part art studio.” A demented Schindler?” They go along with it because he’s the boss or because they like him or feel sorry for him. Finally he falls in love with one of them. She becomes his woman, and he can’t bear the idea of throwing out her portrait.” If Reggie was right and my father was painting his mistress, then he was a man that I did not know, for I had never seen him with another woman, never heard rumor of such, and from everything that I knew he was devoted, throughout his marriage, to my mother.
But if the woman in the painting was his mistress and was still out there, I would find her. And when I found her, I would find her children, my half brothers and sisters. There would be the distasteful surprise, denials, hostility, but soon all would turn awakening, reconciliation, friendships would follow. I readied myself.

Down the street from the hotel where I lived in New York was a large advertising agency. That agency was founded in Omaha, though its principal o...

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