The night before his four-decade retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, Harlan Mallory was standing on a deserted Nantucket beach, under high cold stars and a waning moon, dousing his portrait of Ruth with gasoline.
He had been working on the picture for more than five years and he was tired of it, tired of failing. Like a song he could hear in his head but never sing out loud, it had finally become a kind of tinnitus, a pointless torment with a simple cure. He had often burned the work that disappointed him. Alfred raged against the practice, of course. The old man knew he could sell even an inferior Mallory canvas for enough money to buy a new Lexus or pay the monthly maintenance fee on his apartment at the Carlisle. But it made good business sense to keep weaker pieces off the market; and anyway he liked watching them burn. The fire meant closure and control, and most of all it meant revenge.
He struck a match and dropped it in the saturated sand beside the pile of driftwood, jumped back as the gasoline exploded with a deep cough of ignition. He watched the flames melt and blacken that elusive face, wincing against the heat, his own face pulled into a bitter smile: one enemy less to harrow him in this world, one more Pyrrhic victory.
He put his back to the fire and trudged away from it, up the steep dunes to his house. He’d seen enough. He looked back one more time at the flickering blaze, the coil of smoke lifting to the star-strewn sky, then went inside to pack.
He was looking forward to seeing the Guggenheim retrospective, much in the same way he’d anticipated the new addition Dave Congdon had built for the house while Harlan was traveling in Europe three years before. Harlan had worked on the blueprints and fussed over the pitch of the roof and the size of the dormer windows, but he was happy to leave the actual work to others and have the finished project appear in front of him as a feat of magic, pulled out of the back of Dave’s F-150 like a white dove from a coat sleeve.
With the Retrospective, Harlan had commuted to the city at first, working for days at a time with Nancy Spector and her staff as she hung the show, sorting through his warehouse of paintings. But he argued with the severe and brilliant chief curator over every decision and invariably lost the arguments – and wound up feeling morifyingly grateful for each defeat.
She ignored works he cherished, (in retrospect, they seemed slight or slovenly ,over-done or over-reaching); she pounced on minor pieces he’d forgotten about or dismissed – quite unjustly, it turned out --and insisted on bizarre groupings of canvases which made all of them look much better and even gave them the luster of some thematic connection which had never occurred to him. She remained infuriatingly deferential through all their battles, until he felt like a bully, pushing at her, yelling and apologizing -- and a not particularly well-informed bully at that. Finally he gave up and left her alone.
She was much better at her job than he was. And her magic trick was going to be far more impressive than Dave Congdon’s.
Thus it had been several weeks since his last night at Riverview Terrace, and the house, when he let himself in the front door, had a musty un-lived in feel to it. With the thermostat lowered to fifty the front hall was chilly, colder than the air outside. Harlan set his suitcase down and turned up the heat. After the usual ten second lag, the deep welcoming grumble of the furnace kicked in and he started upstairs.
Stepping into the big living room, with its broad windows overlooking the small park and the river beyond it, he knew he needed to make some changes. Ruth’s presence irradiated the room, tainting every detail: the Canadian wool blankets, folded over the backs of the two big arm chairs, she had picked out at some antiques auction in Connecticut years before; the Campari match strikers bristling with strike-anywhere matches, left over from the days when people still smoked; her favorite volumes of history and biography filling the shelves, the Jim Dine Hearts on the wall, the big Rauschenberg that dominated the stairway; the oriental rugs she had bought at Nazmiyal during a birthday spending spree; not to mention the Baxwood Havana brown wood end tables, the brass jug lamps, all of it, even the pale salmon wall color. Ruth had picked that paint out of a Ben Moore fan deck sometime in the late seventies. It was old and tired and dated. Clean white walls would make the room look twice as big.
Julia hadn’t said a word about the way the house was decorated, her finely tuned social graces no doubt forbade her to even raise an eyebrow in such somber circumstances, but Harlan had noticed the odd penetrating glance during the memorial service, and he could tell that she’d pounce on the chance to perform a floor to ceiling make-over. Julia lived for this sort of thing and she was damn good at it; not that different, finally from Nancy Spector at the Guggenheim.
So, fine: he’d let her have at it, price no object. The job would make her year and keep him out of the city, hopefully working on new ideas in the big studio on Nantucket. Perhaps burning that portrait had been a kind of cremation after all – not of memory exactly but memory’s toxic twin, nostalgia. No looking back now. The world collapsed into itself as you walked. There was nothing to see but the advancing edge of the crater, and you kept moving if you had your wits about you, if you didn’t want to fall in.
He had received a letter from the Tate the week before. They were interested in mounting a show. Maybe he should move to London for a while. He knew he needed to settle things with Robert first, though how he might do that, he still had no idea.. He couldn’t change his personality, become someone else, as every woman in his life except Ruth had wanted him to do.
But did it really matter? Human beings had a hard-wired need to make stories out of their lives, to find satisfactory conclusions. Experience had taught him that there were no satisfactory conclusions. Look at the business with Joanna Clark – what a useless muddle that had turned into. All because he couldn’t leave things alone, couldn’t let a good decision stand. Well, he was going to get at least one more chance to figure that one out. At his request, Alfred had invited her to the opening. And there was a message on his voice mail from her. She was ‘looking forward to a serious talk’, whatever that meant. Nothing good, probably.
It wasn’t worth thinking about. Instead went to bed early, woke up at dawn and set out for the first of many long walks through the city. This was how he had always celebrated and embraced his home town – on foot, on purpose, on his own. He walked west to Fifth Avenue, through the park and then north all the way to the Columbia University campus; then following that winding horse-track Broadway south and East all the way to Union Square; and finally, up Park Avenue into Harlem.
He felt his childhood crowding around him as he walked. Much had changed, as always, but as always the essence remained the same, the grit and energy in the streets, the sense of striving and struggle, the intoxicating vapors of success and fulfillment – the young families emerging from the old pre-war apartments on Park Avenue, the blithe children of privilege, the thousand year Reich of the new gilded age.
And he was part of it, his house was finer than most of theirs, his address more exclusive, and it was bought with his own talents. No one had suffered for his fortune, His money was clean. He was innocent … until you took it one step further. Who could afford his work, after all? Those young Wall Street fixers, with their baseball caps and designer running shoes, heading out to jog around the reservoir. His money was just as dirty as theirs; the only difference, a few more fingerprints on the bills. They laundered their money through the Barudsky gallery, and it didn’t have to be drug money, their Byzantine bundled securities and toxic financial instruments were worse than drugs. In a just world no one could afford the stratospheric prices Alfred charged. Ruth had made the same point many times; he could hear her voice in his head now. She had always been his conscience. She never let him get away with a single lazy thought.
There was nothing to be done, though. He already gave away huge slabs of money every year in scholarships and grants and donations to every charity he agreed with and some he didn’t. No atheist had ever given the sums he offered to that Catholic homeless mission in Seattle. That had been Ruth’s idea of course. Always it came back to Ruth, all roads lead to Ruth. The Ruthian Empire. Maybe it could fall at last, felled by arrogance and the loss of true leadership, rudderless and corrupt in the twilight of its power, one more cautionary tale for future historians to study.
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Nothing was required of him now. No need to pursue the future. All he had to do was open the door, welcome it in out of the winter dusk: attend his Retrospective, make a final pass at the fabulous girl he had discarded in a fit of pique, sever relations finally with his son, or heal them somehow. The opportunities would arise. His job was simply to recognize them, and act.
It struck Harlan as eerily appropriate that his catastrophic night began on a note of triumph. Things often worked that way for him – the wedding night car crash that put Ruth in the hospital with a broken collar bone, the graduation with honors from Hampshire College that ended with a notice from the Northampton Draft Board. And of course who could forget the pointless shoving match with Hilton Kramer that landed Harlan in the 19th Precinct drunk tank, on the night of his first gallery opening ever?
Barudsky had bailed him out, of course, the first occasion of a ritual ceremony that the old man had now apparently passed on to Robert. Seeing his son’s face in the police station that night had been shaming, grotesque – but perhaps that was that was the point. If so, Alfred’s tactic was working: Harlan had been a model citizen since then, and he was planning to continue in that role from now on.
He was wearing his Joseph Abboud tuxedo, it still fit perfectly, and he had shaved and gotten a haircut. A teeth cleaning at the dentist along with some color in his face from his long winter hikes in the city made him look ten years younger than his sixty years. He was ready to charm the one percent, happy to accept their flattery with a self- deprecating smile. He wasn’t fooled -- he knew where he stood in the scales of art: well above Ruth’s favorite, Jim Dine, well below Rothko and Pollack; and standing in a pit gazing up at his real heroes, his forbears, his masters, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. But he had earned his retrospective, and he was determined to enjoy it.
By the time he arrived at the museum, the rotunda and the spiraling galleries had filled with more than two hundred people. The bar was set up by the fountain and a table of hors d’oeuvres catered by Eli Zabar stood beside it. The muted roar of conversation struck him like a wind as he brushed past the guard at the door. No one else had noticed him yet. He stood for a moment, inhaling the warm dry air of his triumph.
The Guggenheim museum. The goddamn Guggenheim museum. He remembered the days when it was under construction, dragging his father the long way home from school so he could study the work in progress.
Even at the age of six, making his first finger paintings in Elementary school, perhaps because he was surrounded at home by his father’s sketches and magazine cover proofs, his mother’s clay sculptures, he was acutely aware that the growing building was a work of art, one of many in the city, his city, virtually a museum itself, from rocky paths in the Ramble to the Italianate glory of the Frick to the airborne grandeur of Aero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy airport.
And now here he was, in the great curving sweep of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, where had had wandered past the works of Josef Albers, Franz Kline and Paul Klee, Matisse and Pissarro. He couldn’t help feeling like a bit of a fraud, but he enjoyed the feeling. He wore it like he wore his absurdly elegant tuxedo, the dress whites of an army he despised. It was just one more way to be invisible.
But of course the Harlan Mallory people thought they were seeing had never been more ostentatiously on display. The air changed, sharpened, when people began to realize that he had arrived. Conversations stopped, heads turned, and some fool started to applaud. Others joined in and Harlan had to perform a mock bow to silence them.
He shook hands and accepted congratulations until Alfred appeared beside him with a glass of some good scotch on the rocks. He took a grateful swig and turned to the group Alfred had pulled in his wake. Alfred took Harlan’s elbow and turned him deftly ten degrees to the left.
“Harlan Mallory, Edna Matthews and Gloria Kauffmann.”
He shook their hands, two bulky women in matching red sheath dresses. Each had small gem stone earrings and a string of pearls around her neck. The two reds were just different enough to clash.
“My husband collected your work for years,” one of them said. Harlan had already forgotten their names. They started strolling up the long curve of the ramped gallery.
“It’s all a mystery to me,” the other one remarked, following him. They had paused in front of the first painting – a semi abstract seascape painted on the beach at Wauwinet. It was impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. The woman squinted at it. “This is exactly what I’m talking about,” she said. “What is that picture supposed to mean?”
Harlan smiled at her belligerent tone. “It means I made a great deal of money that year,” he said.
“So you can’t explain it?”
He sighed. “Explaining art is one of the great vices of the weak minded. I leave it to academics and critics who can’t do anything else.”
Maggie Barudsky joined them as the woman moved off with an offended grunt.
“Sorry --” Harlan began.
Alfred cut him off. “Please. I always expect the worst possible behavior from my artists.”
“In fact you demand it,” Maggie said. She took Harlan’s arm. “A painter who isn’t rude and infantile makes Alfred suspicious. He’s probably a phony or a plagiarist, isn’t that right darling?”
Harlan caught sight of Joanna Clark, three swirls above him, leaning on the railing looking down into the milling crowd.
“Excuse me,” he said, and started easing his way up toward her. He was also looking for Nancy Spector, but she found him first, slipping up at his side while he studied the five big double-sided canvases hanging on their cables from the skylight.
She looked slim and elegant in a black strapless dress. He hugged her. “It looks fantastic. You did a great job.”
“No thanks to you – and thanks for that, by the way.”
“A good general knows when to retreat.”
“And a good Emperor knows when to lose the war.”
He bowed. “My lands are yours.”
She looked around contentedly. “It is good, isn’t it?”
“How do you think it will do?”
She smiled. “Somewhere between Richard Diebenkorn and the Motorcycle show.”
“The motorcycles were fun.”
“So are you. Especially the nudes. I hung them right at the top. Make people work a little.”
“Indeed.” She followed his gaze. “I see you have your eye on that girl up there. Don’t embarrass yourself. And find me later. I have donors for you to meet.”
She moved off and Harlan circled his way uphill, past the paintings of homeless people he’d done in the eighties. He hardly recognized them and the dark smeary clots of impasto struck him as melodramatic now. He looked across the gulf of space, past the dangling semi-abstract of clammers on the beach at Madequecham. Joanna was alone.
Had she broken up with Robert? The truth had obviously come out at Oliver’s memorial service. Robert had fled, with Joanna chasing after him. Had it all been too much for them – the reality of the affair, the two year co-habitation and all the time since that Joanna had lied about it? That would be a staggering blow to most relationships, maybe the death blow. And Robert had always been the sensitive type. This would shatter him. It clearly had shattered him -- he was gone. If they were still together, Joanna would be on his arm tonight. She wouldn’t go stag to an event like this, not if she could possibly help it. He knew her better than that.
So they were done, and Harlan had wanted it that way, and pushed them toward disaster, and he was glad – might as well admit it. “Lie to other people,” he always said. “Never to yourself.”
Joanna was slipping her iPhone back into her purse as he walked up to her. He felt a slight tilt, that stride slipping roll of the deck as the low groundswell of reality nudged the boat. He knew who she’d been calling. Who else? Would Robert really have broken up with her over a lie like that? Had he divorced Ruth over Oliver? The kid was smart, and he obviously knew his limitations. When you find a woman like this, hold on tight and don’t let go. You’re not going to find another one.
“Joanna,” he said.
“I have no idea. Why have a cellphone if you never take it with you anywhere?”
“Before he got contacts, he lost every pair of glasses he ever owned. He lost three pairs of drug store readers in one day. Couldn’t keep track of his wallet, either. It’s odd. People always seem to misplace the things they need the most.”
“How about you?”
“From time to time. Thanks for coming.”
“I wouldn’t miss this.”
Her took her arm and started walking her uphill. “Which is your favorite?”
“I’m no critic.”
“You certainly are. And better than most.”
She stopped in front of a painting of a couple embracing in a messy kitchen – dishes piled on the table, pots soaking in the sink, platters of food waiting to be wrapped up and stowed in the refrigerator, empty bottles of wine, full ashtrays, the first light of dawn staining the window sill. It was called After the Party. “I love this one,” Joanna said.
“From the days when people still smoked.”
“People still smoke.”
“Furtively. This was 1971. Everybody smoked and nobody cared. The good old days.”
“These are my good old days.”
They studied the painting. “You were more sentimental then. It’s lovely.”
“I loaned it to the museum for the retrospective. Do you want it?”
“You can have it.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I certainly am.” He reached over and lifted the big canvas off the wall. “We can take it with us right now. Let’s go.”
A group of people seemed to fall back, as if a fight had broken out. Someone gasped, someone else had their phone out. This moment would be posted on YouTube within the hour. Maybe it would go viral – everyone’s ambition now. To imitate a disease. He would have snatched the phone away from the pudgy bearded guy but his own hands were occupied. Two guards pushed their way through the throng.
“Hold it mister!” the younger one shouted.
Harlan was drunk on the moment. He swung the canvas at the uniformed kid, grinned as the boy stumbled out of the way. The older guard grabbed the kid’s arm just as he was getting ready to attack.
“That’s Harlan Mallory, Billy.”
“Let him alone.”
“Let me handle it.”
But Joanna handled it. “Don’t do this, Harlan,” she said in an urgent whisper. “Give to me later. After the retrospective closes. It belongs here now. People should be able to see it. Come on. Put it back.”
“If you say so.”
The excitement drained out of the moment. It wasn’t fun if nothing bad happened. Suddenly he was a lunatic, she was talking him off a ledge. A couple of years ago, she would have loved this little caper. Those days were over, just like smoking at parties.
He replaced the painting, made sure it was straight on the wall, while the guards dispersed the crowd and the flare of craziness faded. Most people hadn’t even noticed anything anyway.
Joanna took advantage of the new sober tone between them and led him into a deserted side gallery full of his fire pictures. The quixotic futility of making still images out of pure energy in motion chastised him as they stood in the middle of the marble floor. Yet people loved these paintings, even Alfred owned one. At least Oliver had known better. “A lot of noise on the subject of silence,” he had remarked when he’d seen the first one, still propped on its easel. “I prefer the real thing.”
Harlan turned away from the pictures, studied Joanna’s face. He knew that squint. She had mentioned wanting to ‘have a talk’. This was the perfect opportunity.
He braced himself, but she still surprised him.
“We have to work this out,” she said. It’s over between us, but I’m serious about your son. I’m in love with him. I want to be with him all the time, so we’re not going to be able to avoid each other anymore. We’re in each other’s lives. That’s it. I’m not saying we can make everything perfect, but things don’t have to be horrible, either. We just need some ground rules.”
He studied her, feeling his last opportunity slipping away. Maybe it had never been there at all. He was a deluded old fool. “Go on.”
“It’s simple. Be polite. Use those famous social graces of yours. No smirking little references to the past, no jokes, no flirtatious remarks ... you’re Robert’s father. Just act that way. It’s a great opportunity. So take it.”
“And if I don’t?”
She gave him a chilly smile. “Well ... nothing would be easier than just not seeing you at all.”
“That’s not your decision.”
“Oh no? Think about it. Including you in our life is going to take a lot of effort. You were married for thirty years. You know who makes those efforts. It’s the woman, Harlan. In this case -- it’ll be me. If you don’t make it worth my while, I’ll just leave it up to the two of you. Which means you’ll never see each other again, except at funerals. And you’re running out do those. Once your brother dies, that’s it.”
“How do you know about my brother? I never talk about him.”
She shrugged “Wikipedia. He works in Dubai, for Texaco. How does that happen?”
“We’re very different. We’re only half-brothers anyway.”
Someone stepped into the gallery, sensed the tension and backed out again. Joanna took Harlan’s arm, squeezed the bicep. She had quite a grip. “Think about it. You know how it works. You’ll decide to call next week -- every few months. But you never will. And neither will he. You’re both too stubborn and inept. So just do as you’re told for once. You’ll be glad you did.”
“What makes you think I care?”
She shook her head, puffed out a contemptuous breath. “You can’t fool me. Don’t even try.”
“Jesus Christ. What are you, taking one of those assertiveness training courses?”
“I thought about it. Then I decided to just start asserting myself. It’s so much cheaper. Plus there’s no weird DVDs to watch.” She took his arm. “I’ve actually gotten quite a lot done since the last time I saw you.”
“Right., yeah. Of course. The restaurant. Are you opening soon?”
“I hope so.”
“How does it look?”
“Come see for yourself. You’re an investor. You deserve a progress report. And I know you want to get out of here.”
It was true, though not quite the way she meant it. She had obviously bought his bullshit about despising the gaudy prizes and gaseous honors that people seemed determined to drape over him, like sheets over the furniture in an empty house. But that was what you said when you weren’t receiving the awards, and Oliver Graeme was – a fact Joanna had been kind enough not to point out at the time. In fact some craven part of him loved this formal show of respect, and he knew better than anyone that his career was far from over. Apart from one justly torched canvas, he was painting better than ever, and even that pile of ashes on the beach proved he was still willing to attempt the impossible, and walk away from failure with his head held high.
That being said …he had come here hoping to see Joanna and he was as giddy as a teenager at the thought of leaving with her. The thrill in his nerves as she hugged his arm in both of hers meant more to him than all the tributes and accolades the world could throw at him. Once they were out on the street, out of the public eye, they might wind up anywhere, doing anything. He allowed himself a rueful smile: still willing to attempt the impossible, indeed.
Well, maybe. But everything else was a bore.
Getting away turned into an ordeal of etiquette, somewhere between a greeting guests at a diplomatic dinner and running the gauntlet during a Fraternity hazing. Everyone wanted to say a few words, shake Harlan’s hand, recall some twenty year old embarrassment or secure his commitment for some future event. He wound up agreeing to half a dozen speaking engagements and artist-in-residence semesters just to escape.
Alfred would extricate him, as always. He embraced the old man by the front doors, and promised he’d be right back and Alfred said it was fine if he left, and both of them were lying and both of them knew it.
What was it about escaping the heat and noise of a crowded party into the night streets, with a light snowfall twirling on the wind, a beautiful girl beside you? Youth, perhaps. Even if it was only the afterimage behind the eye-lids from that glare of innocence, winter sunight on new snow. A memory, perhaps, but alive in the bones and running along the nerves just like the real thing. “The city feels like Christmas when I was twelve years old,” he said as they started south down Fifth Avenue.
“Wasn’t this all farmland in those days?”
“Very funny. Actually I watched them building the Guggenheim. That dates me enough.”
They strolled along, the lovely old prewar buildings lit up beside them, the park silent and dark across the street. The pavement was getting slippery and Harlan walked carefully, feeling old. He remembered running and skimming on these icy sidewalks, in another era.
“This is a great night,” Joanna said. “I hope you appreciate it.”
“You sound like Alfred.”
“Seriously. It’s fantastic. All those people. The Guggenheim.”
And the one painting that mattered, in ashes on Wauwinet beach. He let the thought glide by silently, a bike racer bent over handlebars.
“It felt posthumous,” he said. “I have a lot of good work left in me.”
“But it’s not like that. It’s a pause. Looking back and looking down before you go on. Like … the Everest base camp.”
He smiled. “With all the discarded air bottles to remind you of everyone who’s been there before you.”
“Not that many people have been there, Harlan. It’s rare. It’s special. You know that. And I’m proud of you, proud to be part of your life.”
“You’re part of the show, too. Did you check out the upper gallery?”
“No you didn’t.”
“I remembered that day. Skinny dipping at Squam, lying out on the beach afterwards. You didn’t even sketch me.”
“I forgot. Until tonight.”
A cab rolled towards them, as they approached the 86th Street transverse, its tires hissing on the wet asphalt. Joanna waved it down. “Come on.” She said. “I’m cold and I want you to see the restaurant.”
Twenty minutes later, the cab pulled up on Broome Street and they stood together on the sidewalk looking through the plate glass window, with the words New Nile Café arched across it in gold, and cut with a rakishly tilted palm tree. The front room was dark but they could see a light coming from the kitchen. The shadow of a figure crossed the doorway for a second.
“Calvin, right? The chef.”
She nodded. “He basically never leaves.”
She unlocked the door, followed him inside and turned on the lights. Harlan took it all in, from the squares of the hammered tin ceiling to the long dark-stained oak bar and the glass shelves of bottles behind it, to the tables that ran down the middle of the pine floor. A pool table stood in the shadows beyond the kitchen doors. The big wall opposite the bar was still blank. Robert must have chickened out. Harlan shrugged. It didn’t surprise him. Joanna was watching him, waiting for his reaction.
He held out his arms to hug her. “Wow.”
She embraced him for a second, then stepped away. “Almost there. Let’s have a Macallan. To celebrate. I just got my liquor license.”
She lifted a section of the bar and slipped behind it to pull the cork on a bottle of the 18-year-old single malt, as Calvin poked his head out of the kitchen door.
“Oh, hi. Everything all right?”
“Great. Are you heading home at some point?”
“Soon. I’m just going through inventory and recipes. I’ll be in the office if you need anything.”
Joanna poured two doubles, neat, into a pair of old- fashioned glasses, pushed his across the gleaming surface of the bar.
“He didn’t introduce himself.”
They lifted their glasses, touched them with a musical clink and took the first sip.
“You know,” he said, “There’s a question I like to ask people when I meet them for the first time. I never asked you, but --”
“We didn’t do too much talking that day.”
“Or that week -- sorry. I just broke one of your rules.”
“The rules start tomorrow. What’s the question?”
“When did you know you knew? Some people answer instantly --some people never even understand what I’m talking about.”
”Well I do. It was in sixth grade. One day my English teacher said ‘infer’ when she meant ‘imply’ and I realized I was smarter than she was.”
“Did you correct her?”
“I was a bitchy little smart ass. She hated me forever after that.”
“The beginning of arrogance. What a lovely moment. And essential, too -- it brought you here. Despite all the experts and nay-sayers.”
“I doubt I was the only one.”
They sipped their scotch, listened to the cabinets opening and closing in the kitchen, the clank of the radiators, a distant siren moaning up Broadway.
Harlan set his glass down. “I have a theory. There are only ten original people born every century. Everyone else is just a copy. A lithograph or a print. There are times when I think I’m just a signed, numbered edition of William DeKooning.”
She smiled. “Maybe it’s the other way around.”
“Maybe. Or else we’re just both reasonably good prints of Matisse.”
“You could do worse.”
“That’s what Ruth would have said. It’s strange. I almost never think about her. But I’m always painting her.”
“Does it help?”
“Actually, I’ve given up.” He pressed out a tight little smile. “Time to move on.”
“Ah, yes -- mental health. The source of all great art.”
“No sarcasm permitted in the New Nile Cafe. And no self pity.”
She reached over and touched his wrist. “I’ve got a million of ‘em. So, tell me – what are you working on now?”
“Nothing. Just resting on my laurels.”
“Well, I have a project for you. I still haven’t been able to get anyone paint my mural. I had the wall primed, I bought the paint and brushes, but … I don’t know. Everyone’s too busy, or too important to trust their beautiful art work to a restaurant wall.”
“What a bunch of bullshit.” He stood up and walked to the wall, running his finger-tips over the cool smooth surface, stepping back to inspect it the gray primer coat. “See the darker spots? The plaster hasn’t cured properly. The mural won’t last more than fifty years or so.”
She walked over to join him. “Neither will we.”
“Speak for yourself. I plan to live forever.”
“So – you’ll do it?”
“Let me see the paint. And the brushes.”
Joanna took him into the back and they lugged some cans and bags out of a storage closet. Harlan sorted through them, impressed: quarts of Ronan paint in more than a dozen tints with the heavily pigmented Japan colors, good Dutch thinner, Simmons sable brushes. “You did your homework.”
She shrugged. “Google to the rescue.”
“Do you have working pots? Fine grit sandpaper? Stir sticks, rags?”
She performed a small bow. “I have it all.”
He grinned. “Then let’s get to work.”
“What? I mean – now?”
“I’m drunk enough. And you’re on a deadline. So yeah. Right now. Grab the pots and we’ll get started.”
“Whoa. This is fantastic. Thank you so much. This wall will be the most valuable thing in the whole restaurant.”
He turned and kissed her forehead. “The second most valuable.”
“You’re sweet.” She handed him a fist full of brushes. “Now get busy.”
“I’m painting you tonight.”
“But -- ”
“You’re going to be my model. I’ve never painted a woman with her clothes on, and I’m not starting now.”
“But you said – you didn’t need to see me. You could remember.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“I still look pretty much the same.”
He stared her down. “I don’t need visual aids. I need inspiration.”
“But – with the lights on … the window – anyone walking by could see me.”
“So you’re afraid to do it?”
The dare obviously amused her. She shook her head with a tight knowing smile. They still knew each other’s most sensitive nerves, and exactly how hard to push.
“Fuck you,” she said, and he knew that meant ‘yes’.
She pulled off her clothes as he carefully levered open the cans and poured out the paints, thinning and stirring them, looking down ignoring the rustle of fabric and the scrape of zippers. He balanced the paint colors in his mind, the rich Japan tints: deep red, pale blue, forest green, earth brown, shocking cadmium yellow, another blue, a navy that was almost black; burnt sienna, olive green, pink. It was enough to work with and quite suddenly, perhaps it was just the biting resinous stink of the paints themselves he found himself slipping into his purest ascetic work mode, all sensation pulled through the eyes to the wrist, the fingers on the smooth stem of the brush. The erotic charge of the moment, the naked woman standing beside him, wasn’t dispelled exactly, but channeled, focused, weaponized like light through a convex lens, set not to illuminate but to burn.
Joanna stretched, her weight on one bent knee, the other leg behind her and he began stroking her sleek form into the plaster, loving the resistance of the surface, the drag of the paint, the living vibrant line that had always come so easily to him.
But not lately, not in these last paltry years, not with the portrait of Ruth. That had been an agony of paralysis and indecision, as awkward and clumsy as trying to forge his own signature left handed. What had he always said, and refused to acknowledge during that choked stifled time? The best work comes the easiest, quickness is life. People who couldn’t do this thing he did, not just the public in general, but critics, collectors, even gallery owners, even Alfred Barudsky himself who had watched Harlan work on several occasions, could not understand this simple truth. They liked the idea of the artist tormented over each daub of paint, struggling with every pencil line, the artist pulling greatness out of himself as a Prairie doctor might perform a self-appendectomy with kitchen tongs and a bowie knife. It democratized the world for them. But the reality remained stubbornly unfair. Work happened slowly sometimes, of course it did, and Harlan had played the tortured genius often enough, especially during the ordeal of the portrait. But no good work ever came out of that struggle, it never had and it never would.
No, this was where art happened in these moments when he was out of control when he had no idea how the next stroke would end or what it would amount to, when completion was a leap of faith and only the next stain of pigment on plaster mattered.
Joanna stood, on tip-toe stretching her arms to the ceiling, lifting her breasts, twirling for him, sliding on to the floor, stretching out one leg and then another with her hand clasped to the sole of her foot, opening herself to him with her head flung back, then rolling forwards onto her knees with her legs tucked under her in meditation prayer. And Harlan kept going, brush to brush, pot to pot, falling behind her and catching up, merging the figures, lashing them together in Medusa swirl of brown hair.
He had no idea how long they worked – an hour, two hours, three? It was like their first kiss, on the steps in Stone Alley, tilted on the rocky path, Orange Street above them and Union Street below, the harbor glittering between the leaves, kissing until they heard the Unitarian Church bell strike three and realizing they had never heard it strike two, though they’d started down at noon.
Finally he stood panting and said. “That’s it. Get dressed while I finish.”
He could feel her eyes on him as he smeared in the background, shoots of that blaring yellow, turning the sunlight it to fire on the bristles, with the deep red, the jagged living leap of fire he’d always missed before. Oliver would have been proud. He would be heartbroken, too and jealous of this moment … but no, no, Harlan felt the alcohol and the fumes mingling to the point of ignition in his brain,. This was a different woman, one Oliver had never known, one they had never shared. Not Ruth, of course not – and yet, he couldn’t be sure, that gesture of the arm, in the final figure, lifted in a wave but also flinging something g away, letting the wind take some scrap , feeding the birds or finishing a whole chapter of her life – that was Ruth, not Joanna; and the smile on the seated figure, the skeptical challenge of it slashed in with a few flicks of the brush, that was her too. Or maybe not, maybe it was just the spirit, the anger and reckless skidding happiness, the indifference to what people saw or thought. Ruth laughing when they heard that her beloved beater Volkswagen van was considered ‘an eyesore’ in their driveway by the local homeowner’s association: “You think I care what the neighbors say? Fuck the neighbors!” And fuck the pedestrians on Broome Street, watching Joanna’s dance.
Fuck them all, life is a struck match and nothing matters but the phosphorous flare. It eats down the stalk, the raw wood goes red then smoky black, kisses our fingers before we shake it out. That’s life and there’s little enough of it to burn before it shrivels.
He poured clear thinner into the last working pot and set the brushes in it to soak. Then he stood, thinking of Robert. The thought was an irritation, a speck of paint in the eye. There was nothing he could do for Robert, nothing he could say to change things. He was a rotten liar and the kid knew him too well, anyway. The kid was doomed to live in his shadow or give up and make some kind of new life for himself. It sadddened Harlan, but it wasn’t his fault, or his job. He raised the kid as best he could and that job was done. He couldn’t help who he was or how the world saw him. But the facts of their lives had caught Robert in some sort of Asian fighting hold. The more he struggled the more he hurt himself. Finally he’d have to slap the mat and concede defeat.
He stood and felt a swirl of vertigo. How much of that scotch had he drunk? He’d been taking swigs from the bottle while he worked. He let the world pendulum itself to rest, and turned to face Joanna thinking: Well, Robert managed to get this girl, anyway, this wild, exigent beautiful girl.
You had to give him credit for that.
She was staring at the mural. “It’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”
He smiled. “But my girls are better looking.”
Joanna poured out the last of the Macallan and lifted a glass toward him.
“One more thing,” he said. He took the brush from the can of brown paint and scrawled his famous signature – “H, squiggle, M squiggle” as Ruth liked to say – on the bottom right-hand corner.
“Oh no! There’s going to be a table there. No one will ever see your name – unless they drop a fork.”
“Good. Maintain the mystery.”
“Of course, anyone who knows your work …”
“Word will get around. And eventually Alfred is going to want to take some high definition photographs, make a print out of it. Signed and numbered, maybe a hundred copies.”
“That should be quite a payday.”
“I’ll split my share with you. With the Café – a little slush fund for the slow times.”
“Thank you. That’s sweet.”
“Keep the muse happy. Trick of the trade.”
He took the glass and drained it. He was beyond drunk now, on some higher plane of crazy, clear-headed and invulnerable. He crossed the room and placed his glass on the bar next to the empty bottle. When he turned back, Joanna was studying the mural, the semi-abstract iterations of her nakedness.
Her arms were crossed, her left leg taking her weight. He saw the bell of her hair, the long back in the tight black dress, molding her in his mind – my kingdom for a hunk of charcoal! – throwing the lines down on paper. Maybe he would try to paint her dressed, after all. If he ever got the opportunity. He knew they’d never have another night like this one. Carpe Diem! Seize the day? Fuck that. The days were for rote work and routine, meals and money. The days didn’t matter. Seize the night. That was the key.
And don’t let the dawn catch you empty handed.