Harlan Mallory stood at the podium, upstairs in the great Hall at the Nantucket Atheneum, talking about his Viet Nam paintings and wondering how he had won this dreary trifeca of social obligations: visitors down from the city, an evening spent with the relentless Julia Copenhaver, and this excruciating bout of public speaking. As far as he could see, most of it was Julia’s fault. She had convinced him to give the lecture and even assembled the slides and set up the ‘power point’ presentation so that all he had to do was push a button and talk.
“It’ll be lovely,” she had said as they paced around the outside of his new guest cottage, the previous Saturday morning, deciding on a color for the clapboard siding. “You’ll be giving back to the community.”
He had laughed at that. “And what precisely, has this community ever given to me? Just asking.”
She seemed to deflate at little at his obtuse, masculine refusal to understand the simplest things. “This community? Not much I suppose -- a warm welcome, but you’re reasonably presentable. Paved roads and police protection, but you pay taxes for that. I was thinking more of the community as a whole, the human community, the society that nurtured you and allowed you to study your art and create it in peace and sell it for increasingly extravagant prices to the four hundred people who own half the wealth of this country, approximately three hundred and twenty two of whom spend at least some part of August on Nantucket.. You’ve had a lucky life. It’s seemly to show your appreciation in small ways. This would be one of them.”
There was no way to refuse at that point without looking like the bitter old crank that he actually was; but he did make one attempt, revealing that his old friends the Barudskys would be on-island that weekend: other plans, previous engagements, bad timing.
Julia wasn’t buying it. “Alfred Barudsky. He shows your work, doesn’t he? I’m sure he’d be delighted to see you talking about it. Maybe we can get him to introduce the lecture. I’ll take everyone out to dinner afterward.”
“I’m cooking for them that night. It’s an old tradition.”
“Great. I’ll do the dishes.”
So somehow she was coming to dinner at his house after this, as well. She was a force of nature, a human flood. You could pile up the sandbags but they weren’t going to help.
“People often ask me which I find more rewarding - art or parenthood,” Harlan was saying while he brooded over the evening to come. He had nompapers in front of him, not even a little stack of three-by-five cards. This wasn’t a reading, it was a talk. He didn’t need notes to discuss his work; and he liked making eye contact. “I gave a lecture at Williams College last year and stopped into the Clark. to visit one of my paintings. I have one in their collection, around the corner from the Frederick Remingtons. It’s the ‘Water’ panel of my ‘Four Elements’ series – a vision of the 1983 Japanese tsunami. I read in the newspapers that a thirty foot tidal wave had struck Akita Prefecture, and that dark wall of water came straight out of my dreams. Of course now that tourists and surveillance cameras have started documenting tsunamis we know they don’t look anything like the monster I painted . Turns out a tsunami is just a very fast storm surge; an instant flood. The least photogenic natural disaster imaginable. Who knew?”
He pushed the hand-held button and the screen behind him filled with his version of Hokusai. “It occurred to me,” he went on, “that my son Robert was exactly the same age as that painting. The painting was prettier than my son, and more successful, It was more respected and admired. It had required relatively little effort and made me a great deal of money. Whereas my son had required tireless efforts and almost bankrupted me. The liberal arts college alone, where he took our culture’s approved four year vacation before launching his adult life, cost me a hundred and forty thousand dollars, and that was just for tuition. He’s still flailing around deciding what to do with himself. The painting, on the other hand, came out perfect and stayed that way. No contest.” He saw he was losing the audience a little, and raised his hands in mock surrender. "I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Children are great, but painting is easier. Paintings don’t go through adolescence. No painting has ever totaled my car, doing bong hits with a drunken cheerleader. Okay, it was just a fender-bender. And they hadn’t started drinking the beer yet. But it still was not a fun night. Whereas the paintings actually get me high. Those fumes are intense.”
That got the chuckle he was looking for, and he went on to talk about working for the Army as an artist, and New York in the ‘Seventies, showing at the Barudsky gallery, calling out Andy Warhol for painting the Shah of Iran’s portrait, in Interview Magazine, of all places; getting into shoving matches with art critics, and designing a never-used Laurie Anderson album cover. He carefully denied his ‘torrid’ three month affair with her, though it had dominated the early days of The Post’s “page 6” gossip column, complete with paparazzi photographs that even Ruth had finally been forced to acknowledge.
He clicked through the various ‘periods’ of his work, from the meticulously representational war pictures to his flirtations with abstraction and expressionism, the whole post-modern catalogue of other peoples’ experiments and inspirations. Finally he was back to just painting things the way he saw them, which was distorted and bizarre enough all by itself – headless nudes, cities devolving into jungle, apocalyptic skies on fire, ash falling like snow, the wrestlers and street fighters with dead faces and living tattoos, the still-lifes of empty rooms disordered and resonating with some extinguished conflict, the New York roofscapes where the water towers looked like solitary old men wandering in vacant lots. And of course the hand portraits. He had become was obsessed with hands in the last decade, drawn to them or repelled by them, and he had painted dozens of those canvases in the last few years: the sharp angular women’s hands he loved; the hands twisted by Rheumatoid arthritis that frightened him, and all varieties in between.
Most of the questions at the end were tedious and predictable -- where do you get your inspiration what’s the most you ever made on a painting, did you really have an affair with Madonna? The only interesting one came from Julia Copenhaver. She stood and said, “How do you start a painting. I’m fascinated by that -- by beginning. I think it’s the hardest thing.”
Harlan laughed. “Have you been stalking my studio? You’re so right. The real struggle isn’t doing the things we don’t want to do. It’s actually doing the things that matter. We flinch away from them, somehow. I think we’re all just scared. I know I am. So I stick a brush into some little gob of paint, it doesn’t even matter which color, and then jab the canvas, anywhere. It doesn’t matter where. You just want to break the surface tension of that white space. It’s like that moment with a woman, that first touch. It doesn’t have to be a sexual thing. Just your hand on her elbow, guiding her around a puddle, a pat on the back, a friendly squeeze of the shoulder. Once you’ve broken that barrier, the first physical contact, if she accepts it … the rest is easy. It’s the same with that big smear of paint on the canvas. It’s … permission.”
Driving out to Wauwinet after the lecture, Julia leaned into the gap between the two front seats of Harlan’s old Explorer and said, “Lovely speech about your son. I thought the audience was going to stone you to death for a few seconds there.”
Harlan laughed. “The old money people wouldn’t waste good Nantucket stones, and the new money people collect the faux cobblestones people like you sell them. No one’s going to waste any on me.”
“Or they knew you were just baiting them.”
“Making up appalling nonsense just to watch the ‘I-took-a-bite-of-slimy-lettuce' look on their faces.”
Harlan glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. Julia perched at the edge of her seat next to Maggie Barudsky, who was busily texting on her Blackberry, like a distracted teenager – or a CEO. She had actually managed to combine something very close to those two stereotypes when Alfred had first met her, in the dark ages of the rotary dial phone and the manual typewriter: Maggie had been the fastest-rising young female copy-writer on Madison Avenue in 1961, the girl who sold a million pairs of shoes by acknowledging that buying them was a leisure activity, a self-contained pleasure, a greedy head-rush -- not a chore. Her “Because it’s Fun” campaign won her a clio and gave her the clout to start her own shop. Then she met the Hungarian art dealer. They had ruled as one of the city’s great power couples when Harlan Mallory was still doodling his way through junior High School.
Part of Maggie’s success had always been letting other people do the grunt work; she was happy to look down now and ignore Julia as she argued Maggie’s side of a long-standing debate. She would pounce, herself when the time was right, Harlan was sure of it. But not yet.
Alfred was content to watch the scrub pines and trimmed hedges blur by on Polpis Road.
“So you’re saying I care enough about those toy people to bother outraging them?” Harlan asked.
Julia met his eyes in the mirror. “I’m saying” she replied evenly, “That you’re a liar.”
Harlan checked for on-coming traffic and veered off onto the Wauwinet Road. “And how is that?” he asked.
“You obviously adore your son. But you can’t seem to accept that fact. It’s not abnormal – it’s simple biology. Yet you seem to be ashamed of it. You’re in denial, like an old drunk, buying people’s medallions so you can fake going to the AA meetings. My father did that. I know all the tricks. The funny part is, they all say ‘to thine own self be true’. I pointed that out to my father when I busted him. He said, “I lie to other people. Never to myself.’ I thought that made a great deal of sense.”
“I’m not lying to myself. I wish I was. Anyway, it’s not me I’m ashamed of.”
“It’s Robert,” Maggie said quietly, still studying the lit screen of her smart phone.
They rode in silence for a while, after that. Harlan drove over the speed bumps in front of the Wauwinet hotel and out toward the beach.
Finally he spoke. “Let me tell you what I’m making for dinner,” he said.
It turned out to be an excellent meal.
Harlan made a Bouillabaisse from some jars of frozen fumet he had cooked up a few months before, some saffron and garlic, half a bottle of white wine and whatever fish he had found at Glidden’s that afternoon – clams and mussels, swordfish, haddock, shrimp lobster, sea scallops. They were selling decent baguettes at the grand Union these days, so had had picked up a couple on his swing through town, along with some salad greens.
“You must give me your recipe for salad dressing, Harlan,” Alfred said. Then he chuckled. “How many times have I said that?”
“I have no recipe,” Harlan said. “Just throw things together. How many times have I said that?”
“You’re both entirely predictable,” Maggie said. “It’s one of the things I love best about you.” She turned to Julia. “Next Harlan will say ‘This is the best Bouillabaisse I ever made!’ and he’ll mean it absolutely, just like every other time.”
Harlan took a first spoonful of the broth. “I should say nothing, just to spite you. But in fact, this is the best Bouillabaisse I ever made, bar none.”
“It’s very good,” Julia said.
Harlan broke off some bread. “The first time I cooked these two you a meal was 1974. After my first opening. That hole on Bethune Street.”
“I have great affection for that place,” Alfred said. “I believe it’s a laundromat now. Very sad. A lot of careers started there.”
“Including yours,” Harlan said. “Jesus, The city changes so fast. I was walking though my old neighborhood a few months ago. Everything was different. But it looked like Kraus Hardware was still open. All I could see was the ‘ware’ – everything else was blocked by a tree. When I got to the corner I saw the place was a computer store now. The sign was for ‘software.’ That says it all. When I was growing up that part of the city was Germantown. It’s nothing now. Upscale nothing,just, I don’t know -- gentrified to death.”
“We all miss the old days,” Maggie said. The world seemed so much better. I suspect that sort of nostali” Maggie said. “All we really miss is being young. That’s my theory.”
“Still,’ Alfred said. “Those were good times. Before we became ...whatever we are now. Institutions?”
Magie smiled, sipping wine. “Antiques, dear.” She turned to Julia. “Alfred’s new definition of old age is -- anyone who’s ten years older than he is.”
“And there are so few of them left,” Alfr4ed said.
Julia nodded. “My father’s definition of an alcoholic was anyone who drank more than he did.”
“You’re right, though,” Harlan said to Alfred. “People treat me like I’m already dead. When I hear that humble sniveling tone in people’s voices, I just want to slap them silly.
“It’s odd, though. You’ve become impossibly rude and annoying and as a result, everyone is wild to know you. More than ever.”
“It’s true. Just last week someone came by the gallery from Vanity Fair. Dozens of questions.”
“I assume you kicked him out?
“I graciously led him to the door and wished him well.”
“You just have to wait,” Julia said, “It will turn around.”They all looked up at her. She set her glass down. “It’s the praise cycle. It’s like some new form of the Collective Unconscious – a sort of hive mind. Haven’t you noticed? It’s like they have a meeting every year to decide this stuff. It’s satisfying when someone whose work you detest finally comes full circle and their best work in years is universally vilified. But more often it’s infuriating. You can almost smell it before it happens. I had a sense that no matter what kind of book Tom Wolfe wrote next, he was going to get slammed. And I Am Charlotte Simmons got exactly the irrational pasting I thought it would. Maybe by the time he publishes his next book the cycle will have turned 180 degrees and they’ll all praise it … even if it’s just awful. At some pointy it will all swing against you, love. Yiuy’ll know because the review will begin with some utterly chilling bit of praise. You know … ‘After Harlan Mallory’s magnificent 2012 Guggenheim retrospective, the art world held it’s breath waiting for his next bold leap into the future.” Then the axe will fall, and they’ll be ripping you apart by paragraph three.”
Maggie laughed. “That is so true. So true.”
Julia was on a roll. “Then they’ll begin the parenthetical sideswipes. They’ll just give you a sort of off the cuff slap while they’re talking about somebody else. ‘These bold abstract statements refresh the mind like summer rain after the tedious retrograde realism of a Harlan Mallory’ – something like that. He doesn’t have to defend his point or even explain it. You’re retrograde! It’s self-evident. He slips it into a dependent clause and moves on. It makes me crazy, but it’s good to brace yourself. If you live long enough, they’ll be calling you a genius again. You’ll make a come back! But from what? Well, their previous opinions of course. It’s diabolical. But it sells copies.”
“I’ll ride it out,” Harlan said. “I come from a long-lived family.”
“I’m sure you will,” Julia said. “It might not even happen to you. Some people do seem to be immune. You might be one of them.”
“Just keep being absurdly rude and arrogant, my boy,” Alfred said. “They’ll always love you.”
Harlan barked out a short laugh: confirmation, not amusement. “It’s true. People love to be mistreated. First thing I ever learned about seduction. Seriously. The worse you treat people, the more likely they are to dive into bed with you at the first opportunity. I tried to explain that to Robert once. You know -- the required fatherly advice. Never underestimate the self-hatred of a woman, I told him. He was still in high school.
”What did he say?” Julia asked.
“He called me a cynic. It was the worst insult he could think of -- at that time.”
Maggie chose her moment: this was it. “So -- how is Robert?” she said.
Harlan tensed up, just as he had that morning when he found one of those hideous millipedes loitering in his bathtub. Then he had grabbed a copy of Entertainment Weekly rolled it up and swatted the bug into a brown smear on the porcelain. So the magazine was good for something after all.
And the swatting felt good.
“Robert is as usual,” he said now. “Still trying to convince himself he’s an artist. Maybe when he turns forty he’ll give up. It’s a good age for reassessing things. But it’s ten years away. I could be dead by then I’d hate to miss his adulthood. If it ever happens.”
Alfred shook his head. “Robert is a good boy.”
”I was hoping for a little more than that.”
“Then give him a chance,” Maggie said. “Go ovet o his place for dinner net time you’re in town. See how he’s living now.”
Harlan finished his wine, set the glass down. This familiar old conversation was newly grating and more than that, moritifying somehow, when performed out in front of a stranger. Julia Copenhaver’s steady blue eyes on him made him feel like a failure, a loser: just what Robert had called him that horrible afternoon in the art studio at the school. “I know I should,” he said finally. But I find the prospect unbearable. First of all, I’d have to go over to that shambles of a loft for dinner, make tedious small talk with his current girl-friend, listen to him tell me about the gallery show he’s about to get and the ones he just almost got and can he borrow a hundred bucks until his ship comes in? And I’ll be sitting there on some dirty second hand couch, wondering how to tell him that his ship isn’t coming in -- his ship sank at sea a long time ago and it’s time to move inland with the grown-ups.”
His tirade had winded him; it seemed to have sucked the air out of the room for everyone else, too.
“That was harsh, my friend,” Alfred murmured.
Harlan shrugged. He was tired of feeling bad about this. ”The world is harsh. I’m just accurate.”
He started to clear the table. As he took her plate, Julia put her hand on his arm.
“What could he do? Your son … to make you proud of him?”
It was an honest question. She deserved an honest answer. But he didn’t have one. He spoke to the empty clam shells on the plate in his hand.
“I don’t know, Julia.” He said. He felt the pressure of her glance, looked down, dodging it. “I really don’t know.”
And then he fled into the kitchen.
Alfred and Maggie went to bed after a cup of decaf in the living room and Harlan walked them across the dune grass to the guest cottage, leaving Julia to study his rag-tag book collection. If she wanted to know his reading habits, she could do better by scrolling through his Nook Color, which had almost three hundred titles on it now. But real books still made the best wallpaper.
Outside, the air was mild and the soft breeze carried the tang of brine from the sea. At the far end of the harbor they could see the tiny sparkle of town. The stars, dense and bright, seemed much closer and more imposing. The only sounds were the mutter of surf against the beach and the respiration of the wind.
“I love it here,” Maggie said, taking Harlan’s arm. “It’s so quiet.”
“Precisely what I loathe the most,” Alfred said, pausing on a dune to stare longingly at the distant lights. “I prefer Manhattan. I happen take great comfort in the noises of the city -- even the unexplained detonations -- all of it.”
“Construction noise?” Maggie asked.
“Car alarms at three AM?”
“They never wake me.”
“How about the subway?”
“My dear, you know I never ride the subway. I take cabs or I walk. I like the life all around you on the streets. The musicians -- ”
“We heard some musicians here,” Maggie put in valiantly. “Remember? On Main Street -- ?”
“But the ones in the city can actually play,” Alfred said. He must have sensed the asperity in his tone. He finished more gently. “I grew up with noise, my dear. It feels like home to me
It marked night and day: sirens were my crickets, car horns sang cock-a-doodle-do.”
Maggie laughed. “That’s lovely, darling. Bizarre and twisted. But very nicely put.”
“Thank you. I meant every word. As far as I’m concerned, people who don't like the sounds of New York didn't deserve to be there -- even as tourists. Why should I possibly care what if a bus load of rustics and bumpkins from Iowa think my city is too loud? Let them go home and listen to the corn rustle.”
Maggie paused at the door, lingering after Alfred stumped into the cottage.
“Why didn’t you tell us about Julia?” she asked. Harlan found the conspiratorial glee in her voice hugely annoying.
He extracted his arm and gave Maggie a brief hug. “There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “She works for me. I’m re-doing the house.”
“I noticed. She has great taste.”
“She’s a bandit. Between the granite counter-tops and the new faucets … even the paint costs a hundred and twenty bucks a gallon – and it’s not even a gallon! They call it a ‘eurogallon’, whatever the hell that means. I suspect it has something to do with eurotrash, and we have more than enough of that on Nantucket already -- men in pointy shoes and tight blue jeans, speaking Bulgarian into blue-tooth units. Ugh. I prefer the old Nantucket: old money people drinking Bloody Marys, fishing in Sesacecha Pond and letting their houses fall down around them.”
“Be that as it may. You’re changing the subject. Julia is bright and charming and she actually seems to enjoy your company. I’d grab her and hold on tight, Harlan. Especially now that you’re finally scrubbing the ghosts out of your house.”
“I wonder about that sometimes. Maybe it’s a mistake. Ghosts are underrated.”
She squezed his arm. “You’re not going to get of Ruth that easily. But you don’t need her old race pictures and jugs and burgees and whriligigs everywhere.”
“Johnnys. The old Nantucketers called them Johnnys, not ‘whirligigs’. That’s for tourists only. Anyway, that’s what Ruth always said.”
“Get rid of them. She’d want you to live in the present, Harlan.”
He grunted, almost a laugh. “I never paid any attention to what she wanted when she was alive, so why I should I start now?”
“You’re impossible.” She kissed his cheek. “And you’re taking me to that dreadful Whaling Museum tomorrow, whether you like it or not.”