Ella Marie will Ride Fast Horses

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“This is Ella Marie, your subject,” Cecile Harnett announces as she enters. The child half-curtsies and mumbles what I take to be a greeting.

Ella Marie has been ushered into my studio with a push at her back, and I see a cloth bag of what her mother calls accouterments held snug against an expensive navy purse. A vase of brilliant flowers leans in the crook of one arm. The vase shimmies perilously in the pull of gravity so I offer to take the vase and look for a spot to set it. A teetering pile on my desk is shoved aside to free up a couple bare inches.

“For you. Or for the portrait, your call.”

Her young daughter peeks around her elbow, then steps apart from her and she takes in the studio, arms crooked behind her back.

She looks around, her freed hand smoothing feathery champagne bangs from her forehead, lips in a straight line as if trying to not leak a sigh of distaste. I admit my studio does not reflect a rising artist. More a cultural dilettante who likes making messes in an overcrowded attic space. I know at first glance my planned Blue Studio didn’t inspire confidence in others as much as it did myself. But I liked the sad little bungalow with large garage–a garage that became a two story art space. Of course, it’s been shined up since then. A lot of business has increased for me within four years in this touristy village. Thus, the trying customer with her lovely but bored and bland (might be overreacting to such even features, the blank stare) daughter.

“Gretchen says you’re as good as it gets here, Tessa, and we sure need a good portraitist since Harold Zimpter left. Though how anyone could aspire to take his place is stretching credulity. He was the creme de la creme and so enchanting one wanted to sit for him just to listen to him rattle on about his world travels and arcane interests.”

She lifts her right eyebrow at me, a delicate feather glued upon her vast forehead. We have already discussed what is desired, agreed on the price, the rapid timeline. I think she is waiting for a response, like noting how I studied in Paris (did not) or that I am an avid admirer of Zimpter’s work (though old school conventional, he has his strengths). I had expected a few pretenses but not this much. Her daughter looks at the floor, as if drawn to the cracks in the reclaimed pine floorboards I used, then nudges the toe of one of her black Mary Jane shoes into a wiser crack.

I take a diversionary route.”Yes, he is well known though paints far less now he’s ninety. Gretchen has commissioned three paintings of various sorts. But today I’m looking forward to painting Ella Marie.”

I get down on a bended knee and murmur, “Hello, Ella Marie, new to this painting business, I guess?”

Not how I usually greet children. Even if disgruntled by the whole business, they are often eager to chat and poke about. Some even pose from the start, as if coached by parents or believe they’re dazzling and desire my certain appreciation, as well. Ella Marie just glances at me so quickly that I suspect she is just be blinking in the bright, paint-imbued atmosphere.

“I’m not too certain she returns that feeling. But it must be done. She’s seven and her grandparents have wanted a portrait at least a couple of years– for their gallery, as they call it, a long, broad hallway where they hang family portraiture.”

“So you said, and I’m glad to oblige.” I stand up and let Ella Marie’s shoe explore more cracks. Her eyes follow me ever so little. “You brought some items, I see?”

“Ah, yes, to help things go right and rosy.”

She isn’t kidding. She opens the bag and pulls out a circlet of realistic white roses; a necklace in a pretty turquoise box that when opened reveals a simple open silver star on a fine chain (“A Tiffany’s trinket, yes”); a headband made of ivory lace and one tiny pink rosebud; and a dress that looks more like a miniature plum colored evening gown than a child’s tog. There is also a pair of white gloves. I am borderline appalled but smile and wait to hear what she says. Ella Marie is perusing the pile son my desk but shoots her mother a look that indicates she may not be so thrilled, either.

“Just ideas. Mama loves roses and they’re more formal so those are a must whichever we use. The dress was handmade for this. But I don’t want her too overly adorned. Shall we get started, then?”

I’m thinking that the child looks fine as she is, in dark green paisley slacks and a white blouse. I direct them to a corner and a quadruple-fold screen that I made, more comfortable a change area than my cramped bathroom.

When Ella Marie emerges, she says nothing, still is taken with the floor and its cracks. There is no doubt she wears an elegant, expensive dress. She steps cautiously into a swath of early morning rays thrown across the floor. My eyes catch hers, which sparkle in the light, and I see her running across an open field, barefooted, golden curls flying, her face wreathed in smiles and honeyed sunshine, arms swinging for joy.

Her mother beams with inordinate pride but the girl I envision is not at all this fake princess before me.

******

I can hear Cecile sigh as she taps on her phone. I start a quick sketch on the canvass, looking at her daughter off and on. Ella Marie is sitting dutifully before me in a wicker chair, feet set upon a matching footstool, her face half-sunlit and turned toward me. If there was more time, I would have just sketched over a couple sittings, then begun the painting but no, the Harness family wants this before Christmas rush begins. I happen to have a loose hour here and there twice a week if I cram more into the rest of the time. It may have been a mistake. A painting can take months, of course, but at times a small portrait comes to me fast and furious and can turn out as well or better as the more painstaking ones. With acrylics, I work fast, anyway; they dry quickly.

“So what motivated you to move to Greenpointe, Tessa?”

I do not like to talk on and on so offer a usual line. “Got tired of the city like most who move here.”

“I’m told your father grew up here, that grey rambling house on the western shore? I suppose you visited here years later. Was he also an artist?”

“Advertising,”I mumble, then clamped lips shut. Enough; I have work to do. “I’m sorry, I need calm my mind, concentrate.”

Another long sigh, nearly a whistle of restless annoyance. “I think I’ll get a coffee and scone down the block. Okay, Ella Marie? Back in an hour, is that okay?”

We both nod, the child giving a prim wave, and Cecile leaves with designer bag in tow, her Sperry Topsiders thumping on each step as she navigates the steep stairs.

Ella Marie, taking after her mother, lets go a rush of air that is surprising considering her stature.

“I don’t want to do this, you know.” She doesn’t change her posture, just speaks quietly but with certainty.

“I can see that nor am I surprised, most kids do not.”

“You can tell? Mom says smile, make things work.”

“I can see you are bored and annoyed and uncomfortable in that fancy dress.”

Ella Marie grimly stretches her lips into a disgruntled curve that states agreement. Looks straight at me until I look back “Did you ever have to do this?”

“No. I always had to draw for adults.”

She thinks about that as I sketch quickly now, pencil seeking her personality, lightly trying it on canvas. She bristles with energy, but softly, perhaps told a million times to take it down a notch and trained in absolute manners. She is a child doomed to perfection-seeking unless she can find a way to wiggle past all that until she finds herself.

Wait, I think, she is only seven. And a half, as she pointed out recently.

“I said I’d only do it if she let me ride the horse next door, Ms. Gretchen’s horse.”

I draw the light fluff of curls that spiral around her chin as she speaks, catch the loose-limbed ease she displays as she relaxes, small shoulders squared with a quiet confidence.

“She agreed, I guess.”

Ella Marie bounces twice, arms up as she raises her fists into a victory punch. “Yes! I take a first lesson tomorrow with Hanna, her teenager.”

There it is, there’s the kid who will try her hardest to find the paths into woods and hills with their wild beauties, the stream full of frogs and salamanders and squishy mud where bloodsuckers may lie in wait but she’ll take that chance. At least I imagine.

The sketch feels more right than wrong and I announce to her that after a few tweaks we will start painting at the next session. I am finding her easy to recreate on paper.

“But what about this dress? Any chance your mom could pick something else?”

She shakes her head. “Oh no, this is what Grandmother and Grandfather would like the best.”

“Okay, then, we’ll do the best we can with what we have, right?”

She giggles, a silvery chime floating in my studio. “Right, Miss Tessa.”

******

The next weeks Cecile is either on the phone and pacing as she discusses apparent re-decorating plans with controlled irritation, or she is anxious to be released from quiet waiting and so exits to the coffee shop as I work. She has asked twice to see the painting, but I never show a painting in progress, despite it being commissioned. Not until I decide it is developing well, at the least. No sense distressing those who know nothing of portraiture.

Ella Marie seems assured that whatever I do is fine.

“I like how you dance a little with your paintbrushes. I like the smell of things up here. Can I see it this time?”

“No, not til it’s done. It won’t be a good surprise until it is finished.”

“What if Mom doesn’t like it?”

“Then I won’t get paid–or paid well.”

“That’s not good.” She frowns and a subtle fierceness leaks out, despite the plum dress and the lacy headband her mother chose. “You’re a nice lady. You’re a special painter, no one can decide any different.” She clasps her hands, shakes them once for emphasis.

My own tired hand pauses mid-air. The small brush I hold is loaded with delicate, tender pinkness of rose that blooms from the ornate headband set on the canvas. I want to sit across from the girl, tell her how wonderful she is and to not mind the terribly plum dress and all smiling falseness and even impatient, demanding parents.

But she is a client, not my daughter, not even a niece or good friend’s child. She has been here twice a week for nearly four weeks. I have heard her horse stories, her childish gossip, her night dreams of winged horses and pixies that kindly rule the forest, and have seen her wilt as her mother corrects her syntax at such a young age and tidily pulls up each sock before they leave.

I have to wonder if this kid ever gets to scrape her knees or wear battered tennis shoes or use bad grammar. But maybe that will come, it is none of my business, after all.

“Why don’t we take that little rose off your headband? I have a bobby pin to set the flower into your hair. Let me get the mirror.”

We affix the rose into a wave at her temple but it still looks too….theatrical, contrived. I don’t want her to look too “cute,” it doesn’t suit her.  She shrugs.

“Next time, I’ll have a wildflower crown for you.”

She shrugs. “I’d like that better but Grandmother…”

I’ve already started two portraits, the other on my own time. I can’t only paint one of Ella Marie in that chair, her Tiffany necklace positioned in the center of her chest, hands folded in her lap. She is a patient model now that we’ve established more of whom she is or may be, a truly free child at heart, an ordinary young wild thing, but  she knows she has to get at it in a careful manner. Like horseback riding, which is reportedly going well. The youngster has a knack for it.

“At first I thought I might break my neck, was bouncing way too much. But now I just feel what the horse does and follow along, sort of. It’s not too hard. It’s–“she snaps her fingers and the sharp sound almost rings in my studio–“like, presto changeo! when I get with itI’m really happy there.”

I laugh for the pleasure of her enthusiasm and she tosses shoulder length curls like a horse tosses its mane, and paws at the ground with one of her Mary Janes.

“Whoa, horsey!”

“School is boring, though. You like school?”

“Art school. Now hold still, chatterbox.”

“Yes, all those paints and things! Okay, we must get it done, huh?”

I wonder how Cecile got so lucky to have this kid and find I am almost bracing for her departure. I’m just the village artist-in-residence, the new portraitist.

When her mother returns, she sneaks a glimpse from the side before I carefully turn the easel aside. Out escapes a sibilant response that, from Cecile, denotes a kind of pleasure.

“Such sweetness and delight, fine work, my dear!”

“Can I see?” Ella Marie asks her blue-grey eyes pleading.

I shake my head. I don’t want her to see, not yet. She puts hands on skinny hips, stands with feet apart in the long velvety dress as if to do battle, but briefly. She returns to a more approved standing position, waiting, as her mother is watching out for bad manners,  her glinty eyes narrowed above shining teeth.

******

After four weeks, the commissioned piece is finished and when Ella Marie arrives we are both quiet. I have set aside two other projects to rush this order and Cecile Harnett will pay extra for that. One will be perky yet radiant, I hope, wedged between the other good looking, well-behaved, precious grandchildren, like trophies gleaming along a special byway of fame–granted, they are the trophies all families love the best. Ella Marie’s determination, her intelligence and burbling delight, her inclination to push a bit beyond boundaries may not be blazing fact to the everyday eye. But I study her and see it, and care enough to strongly hint at it.

The other painting needs more finesse, time to rest. No one will see that one; it stays with me, unknown to even Ella Marie.

“Is the painting going to make them so happy for Christmas?”

“It will, indeed, their lovely wonder girl.”

Ella Marie laughs as if I’m teasing yet maybe she likes the idea.

“Come and see.”

She gets up and very carefully tiptoes over to where I sit on my stool, then covers her eyes. She one by one spreads her fingers and peeks through to view the 15 by 15 inch portrait, now about dry after late night last touches.

“Ohhh.” Her hands drop to her sides. “That’s what it is….yeah, Miss Tessa, that’s sure what they like.”

Her mouth hangs open a little as she breathes and she reaches to touch the colors representing her face, the flowing velvet, the rose on the headband but stops just short of marring the paint.

“So many colors to make up skin…” she whispers. “Look at the little rose, it might open up right there.”

I step away, let her gaze upon her rendered likeness.

Should I show her the other portrait, the one in close-up where she is the girl riding the wind on a galloping horse, face half-turned to the viewer, her curls like streaming ribbons of light, a restless aura of energy on the verge of something even more: the brave future mirrored in her lively eyes and proud stance?

Someday. Not now.

Cecile comes up all out of breath, full of anticipation, and when she takes a long, intense look at her daughter’s portrait, she pulls out her money, counts upon my drawing table more than agreed upon.

“You captured her essence, our Ella Marie, they’ll adore it! I’ll spread the word, Tessa–fantastic work. Now to find just the right frame!”

As they perch on the top of the stairway, Ella Marie looks back, eyes soft but clear. I can see her mind is busy and all that energy is only pausing between one thing and the next. But she runs back and throws her arms around me, grinning up at me.

“Ella Marie, do a proper thank you and let’s move on now!”

I speak up, releasing her. “Ella Marie, you’ve been a wonderful painting subject and kid, thank you for sitting for me. ”

“Tessa, you’re a wonderful painter, thank you for being you, too!”

And she “high fives” me, then leaves with her mother, just like that.

******

The holidays are upon us in full force and I have a new show at Gina’s Galeria de Arte in the Gaslight District. The other Ella Marie painting is hung with ten others and it is the one attracting most attention. It’s the opening reception and people are drinking and networking and gossiping and I am exhausted as ever by the small talk I must engage in.

Many come up and ask: is that the young Harnett child we all know and how did I capture her that way, did I take photos of her on a horse? It’s so real and yet ethereal… how much do I want for it? Do her parents know yet?

“It is not for sale,” I tell them over and over. The other paintings are good, they are selling well enough but this is exempted. I’m keeping it for one person in case she ever forgets who she is some day.

Then comes little Miss Ella Marie, and she’s pulling at her mother’s purse so in they come. Cecile and husband Thom Harnett hurry forward as they realize now the exhibit is mine. They look for me. I shrink back against a far wall, consider an escape route. I knew they’d see it at some point, I just didn’t think it would be tonight, maybe they’d wander in while holiday shopping one Saturday while I was at Blue Studio, just working.

The three of them meander, the child borderline giddy as she points to the art, her parents perusing each one. And then they’re in front of it, the other one.

“It’s me!” Ella Marie claps her hands and people gather around. “Where’s Tessa? Where is she?”

I slink forward, grasp her proffered hand, then look around at the crowd. Can we not do this another time and place? Can I leave now? Such public attention isn’t good for my stress level but it’s too much to ask; money is necessary so I do these shows.

“This is new and you kept it secret!” she says.

“Secret…” Cecile parrots.

She looks at the painting, then at me and back at the painting. Thom appraises it, zooming in close, pulling back.

“Remarkable. A bit fantastical perhaps, but so remarkably my daughter,” he pronounces.

“What do you think?” I ask Ella Marie.

“I love it, me riding a great horse–how did you do that? It’s really me, Tessa! And you put the daisy crown on me!” She squeals then acts embarrassed and calms herself a bit.

But Cecile slides over with eyes brimming and presses her shoulder against mine a moment before standing apart. She dabs wetness away with a leather gloved finger, quick to avert mascara smears, but still, I feel moved by her open response.

“How much shall I give you for this?”

“Yes,” Thom concurs, stroking his trim salt and pepper beard. “It’s better than the other one, you must know that. It deserves a fine price.”

I let go of her hand, drop to a crouch so I can better speak to her among the holiday gallery trollers. “It was painted for just me at first. Now it is just for you, Ella Marie. No one gets to buy it. Only you can let it go if someday that is what you want to do.”

“Oh…” She places her palm alongside my cheek a  moment, then pats my shoulder. “I want it. I will always want it, no one else can have it.” She bends over to whisper, “I want you to see me ride! I’ll ask Mom to call you.”

“I’d like that. And the picture goes home with you after this show ends. I’ll be in touch.”

“Okay, Miss Tessa.” She neatly curtsies, then giggles.

I notice she has on bright red tennis shoes beneath jeans and a blue puffy jacket and am oddly heartened.

We three grownups chat more. They’re so pleased with the new painting, thrilled their daughter may own art by someone who might be famous one day (maybe, not at all likely). And they are congenial because it’s that time of year and they’re suddenly a topic at the event as people come by to congratulate them–and me.

But as they leave, Ella Marie walking with head high between them and each holding a hand, I see more than I did before. I see a family filled with the certainty of love and I’m gratified I can be this close to such a fine thing, even in passing.

 

Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

066-
brassai-theredlist

I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.

I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.

“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”

He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.

“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”

I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.

“Renders truth more vividly… ?”

He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?

“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”

The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.

“And you?”

“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”

“And your mother…”

“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”

“The nanny and cook.”

“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”

“What you say is always important.”

I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”

Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.

“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”

“It means something.”

“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”

“Your father? Or was that before they met?”

I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”

“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”

“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”

Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.

He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.

“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”

I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.

“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”

I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”

“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”

“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.

He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.

******

The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first.  Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.

These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.

We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.

“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”

Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.

“But did she even know Father then?”

“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”

“What? Who?”

“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”

“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”

“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”

“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”

Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”

“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”

“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”

“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”

He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”

I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”

“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”

I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.

“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”

“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”

Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able to abide boredom?

She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.

“But you weren’t hard to know  once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.

My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.

I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.

Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.

It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?

A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.

I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.

I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.

******

“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.

He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright,  thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.

“Painting again, how is that for you?”

“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”

The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.

“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”

“You learned more?”

“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”

I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.

“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”

Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.

“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”

The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.

I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.

“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”

I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.

I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.

“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”

I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.

 

The Fine Art of Brady O’Connell

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What more could she say? It was how things were, wasn’t that right? Some had opportunity and with it, money, and some did not. Some had love and others had less than what they’d dreamed and hoped for, schemed over. Nicola was not the sort who nattered on and on about what she didn’t get. It was tiresome, even to her own ears. But this was harder to take that she’d expected. After  a couple of weeks it still reared up and kicked at her.

Brady hunched over the table. He leaned on his elbows, arms crossed against a massive chest. His shoulders about blotted out the window behind him. Nicola mused that he was beginning to look like one of those aging television wrestlers, still big on top, paunchy form there down. He was, in fact, a middle-aged academician who taught art history and drawing at the community college.  He was good at what he did; she ought to be more proud of him. But he had, it turned out, so little ambition that he hadn’t bothered after a certain point to ferret out a more prestigious position. Say, overseas. Or on one of the finer coastal campuses where you could escape it all, dawdling along an infinite beach. Brady said it himself: “I teach first for love of it, then for a small studio space, then for money.”

“They’ve earned it, this is a reward,” he offered once more.

Nicola stuck out her neck so she could better peer at his guileless eyes. She tried to keep the acid from her words. “We’ve earned it, too, in notable sweat and blood, but it doesn’t add up the same as persistent career ladder climbing. With resultant promotions.”

“We need to be happy for them,” he gently protested, arms opened in an expansive gesture.

“Right, I’m pleased for them. They’re our second best friends–well, maybe third–and they have always wanted to go to the Mediterranean. On a cruise. Not that I would go on a cruise. All those people adrift on a gigantic boat with nothing to see but endless water. Then docking and unloading, touristing about, eating your fill of who knows what, sun rays welcomed as if immune to damage, then just loading up again Ha.”

His considerable brow creased and smoothed as he stretched. “I thought you loved the idea or a boat trip.”

“I did until I heard the itinerary. And Trina is taking a huge basically empty suitcase she can cram full of trinkets and finds. Seems an excessive approach, how much can you buy that you need?” She glanced out the window: sheets of rain, granite sky, forlorn trees. “Still.”

Relived to hear her dismissal of a big trip, Brady’s mind calmed, then began to fill with images of Trina and his good friend Hans luxuriating on a tawny bluff overlooking a sapphire sea. He pictured how he’d pull out his sketchbook as if it was him not Hans going, and then opening his case of colored pencils. How wonderful to go somewhere mind boggling, experience fresh horizons. He could nearly feel Greek island warmth spread over his balding pate, onto his face and neck. Who knew what masterpiece he might be inspired to create there?

Nicola knew that dreamy, self referential look so got up. She carefully placed their cups in the sink. On the way to the laundry room, she muttered an uncivilized word. What was he thinking– that she would forever hold on for some small reward? All the years she had scrimped and made do and gone along with his plans and they were still barely ahead of the rising costs of living. Life too often felt like a ravenous bear that had to be kept well-fed, then tricked to avert its charging down a short trail to her door.

She’d worked, too, as a dental office manager. Until the highway car smash-up, leg breaking in two places, her right two middle fingers numb after hand injury and so-called reparative surgery. She was no longer fast or accurate on a keyboard, worked only two days a week answering the phone. It was almost humiliating to be there at all.

Nicola dropped things most of the time unless she immediately recalled her left hand was now meant to be dominant. More useful or prized items had been lost to that lapse of memory in two years than were lost in the previous twenty. Now she did lost of crossword puzzles–they didn’t require a fully legible scrawl–or played solitaire or read book after book or puttered in the yard. She took care of Brady. She waited until her fully employed friends were home from work to chat but they always rushed about –could they call her later?

There was a tomato-y spot on Brady’s newer, blue oxford button-down. She saturated it with stain remover, scrubbed until knuckles complained but it remained, a brown blot on an otherwise amenable expanse of blue. The tidy stacks of folded underwear, khakis, tops and towels on a bench gave her some relief. Such a dependable result of her effort was lovely. But as soon as she gazed on them, touching their smooth coolness, her lower lip trembled. The thought of clean laundry making her day right while Trina prepared for exotic shores and bliss–it was too much.

Brady checked his watch, got up and grabbed his jacket from the hall coat tree. He had two classes; time for reveries later. Maybe when he got out his paper, pastels and pencils before turning in. If Nicola didn’t require a lot of care. She had been rather moody of late. Well, since the accident she had, in truth, become more dauntlessly pessimistic. Before then she had allowed room for a gleam of hope here and there at least. That he could live with far better. Now she slipped away into a funk where he, groping, had trouble locating her. It wasn’t a die hard depression, exactly (she had gone through that right after the accident and surgery), just a lukewarm response. Recently it had begun to grow into a predatory resignation, tearing at any peace left.

Since Trina and Hans had informed them of their holiday cruise plans, he thought. All her envy, hurt and regret had come trickling back into their lives, weakening tenuous good will. Brady took his baseball cap from a hook and opened the door. He got half-way out and then stepped  back in.

“Bye Nic, love, see you tonight. It’s Tuesday so I’ll bring Chinese for late dinner.”

He waited as long as he could for her reply, a few beats, but nothing came.

 

******

Brady O’Connell enjoyed seeing the wavering line of colorful, often disheveled students file into his classroom. He loved the lively chatter, anticipating their very occupation of his time and that space. He admired their studied resistance to the banal for fifty minutes while with him. They weren’t entirely thrilled with drawing techniques or an assignment, perhaps, of filling a blank space with a collage of feeling they couldn’t verbalize, nor the history of porcelain or the rise and fall of impressionism. But they did come more than half-ready to attend to his words, ask a number of considered questions. On a good day, that is. The rest of the time, he got to elucidate his knowledge, then demonstrate his skills and wait from them to behave more adult, just catch on. He’d share stories of intrigue, trial and error and creative triumph throughout the centuries. It seemed to help some to utilize this enlarged context for their own aspirations and failures. Brady felt useful, happy when their eyes lit up and they leaned in to him, then got to work.

They asked him occasionally about his own work. He’d refer them to a handful of art journals and an upcoming exhibition. He excelled in detailed colored pencil drawings of nature and also rigorous, elegant architecture, the two intimately related in his mind regarding form and function. Yet it was never done, the demanding work of striving for further excellence. His job depended on it and he knew it was the basis of a vital sense of self-worth. Nicola felt he aimed too low; he felt he was stretching –and was stretched–rather far and high. He wondered how she’d feel if her well being depended on something as nebulous and fickle as creative input and output. How could you measure that? It wasn’t like billing for gold crowns or ordering drill bits. Or like tallying an amount coupons saved on a shopping trip. Or how many hands of solitaire were won out of fifteen. Fifteen in one day she’d confessed, for crying out loud! And that was random, not part of any daily, responsible agenda. That made it more terrible.

There now, this had to stop, he was becoming unkind. But she was becoming more unreachable.

It was the last week of classes until the new term. The students were lazier, missing, inattentive except for one or two motivated artists. Brady gave in their inertia as the afternoon went by. Let his mind go as they worked on a last assignment. They talked in low, chirpy tones of vacation plans. He found himself wandering down nostalgia’s byways, times he had gone skiing with his family over high school week-ends, college breaks. The northern peaks, the place he had perfected slalom skiing. Where he had broken his ankle. Where his parents had announced their separation after twenty years. And where he had met Nicola.

She’d been nineteen, a waitress at Broken Top Ski Resort where his family stayed.

“You going to stare at that menu all afternoon or what?” she’d asked sweetly, with an edge.

Brady had looked up, startled out of a bleary haze. He’d been on the slopes since early morning.

She gave him a grin that flashed teeth, a front tooth just overlapping another. It gave her an approachable look, for she was tall, fit and radiant in the empty dining room.

“You got any cheddar and spinach Quiche left? And more coffee. Please.”

“For you, we might,” she said and poured coffee in his cup, then hummed all the way to the kitchen. He was the most promising thing that had happened in many a day.

When he had finished she asked if he was going to the slopes again that night. He was wiped out, wanted to languish by the massive stone fireplace but curiosity prevailed. And that was the start of young love that became deeper than they expected. He closed his eyes and felt again the razor cold wind on his cheeks, a roaring fire enliven body and soul, her shoulder against his as they talked. Of what did they speak? It was so long ago.

“Mr. O’Connell? My drawing?”

He looked into the smooth brown face of his student and smiled. The work looked wonderful, as usual. She was good. “You’re going to be a fine artist one day, Aarati.”

“Thanks, so you keep telling me.” She smiled back. “Hey, you going anywhere fun for the holidays?”

“Not that I know of, just the usual. You?”

“Snowboarding on the mountain.”

“Mt. Hood?”

She nodded, her whole body emanating excitement. “The snowfall has been amazing. Well, I gotta catch Suzanne and Joe. Have a good one, Mr. O’Connell!”

He beamed at her the best he could but she had already left. As the final student slipped away, Brady stuffed papers, notebooks, pens and pencils into his aging leather briefcase and turned out the lights. Trudged to his office.

“Have a good one.” What does that mean? Have a nice time not a crummy time? Have a decent moment or two with my increasingly morose wife? Root out good stuff from the morass? Is it really all up to me?

The warmth and ease of his day evaporated from his mind. He straightened his aching fullback shoulders that never had done the game enough justice–he was not the player his father had expected. Seemed at times he replayed the same ole game everywhere. Brady put on his hat, tidied up his desk, took off for Ying’s to get dinner.

******

Nicola was sick of Chinese on Tuesdays but she finished every last bite because she was hungry and she hadn’t wanted to dissuade him. She was a decent cook but often disinterested; but she had come to lean on their routines as had he. Brady finished, then cleaned the containers to recycle.

“You do anything fun today? I thought you were going to meet Jude for coffee.”

Nicola pushed back from the table. “She changed plans, said she had to meet with a co-worker for drinks to discuss a new strategy. You know our daughter. Her work is never done, her star is not yet risen high enough.”

He laughed despite himself. It was true, the kid had tenacity and ambition, put them both to shame. Give her time, he thought ruefully.

“Well, I have some things to do. I’ll see you upstairs later.”

Nicola shrugged and opened her crossword puzzle book. What was another word for antelope, nine letters, with the letter “h”?

The wind picked up and sang through a window crack. She moved to the living room, added wood to the low fire and settled into the couch. The flare of flames swirled and danced, released of entrapment. Nicola puzzled over the blanks in her book. What did antelopes look like up close? Why were they fabled for gracefulness? How did they live and die? They had lovely horns.

She faded and dozed, head full of springing creatures in a dazzling desert.

Brady stood behind her, touching the silky ends of her light hair shining in firelight, wondering whether to wake her or wait until morning to talk. About how they had let things get away from them. How they were becoming old prematurely. How he had been neglectful and felt badly about it and knew she deserved much more than he had given her. How he was terribly sorry she still couldn’t well use her hand, that it would have been the end of him if the same occurred. It couldn’t be much easier for her, as much as she enjoyed writing letters and cards to family and friends, doing her crosswords, playing cards.

He sat beside her and her eyelids fluttered.

“It’s pretty late, Nic.”

“Hmm.” She let her head flop against his shoulder. “Pronghorn…is the word…”

“What’s that? I’d hoped we could talk a little.”

“Now? Why?” Her eyes flew open.

Brady took her hands in his. Her long face with crinkles about the eyes; lips under which was etched a tiny scar where she’d fallen as a child; the changing color of her eyes, two oceans that reflected every feeling. He wanted to make things right. He could at least start.

“I found us a cabin.”

“A cabin? Whatever for?”

“Time away.”

Nicola eyed him suspiciously. “For what? Where?”

“Just to be together. Do things we haven’t done in a long time. Have some fun, damn it. It looks a bit run down on the website, don’t get too thrilled. But it has a wood stove, a nice big bed, homey living space. In the Cascades, near a smaller, out of the way ski resort. For five days following Christmas.”

Nicola’s anxious eyes grew large with disbelief. Deep longing and remnants of sadness showing themselves as the chill, too long  a wedge, began to ease. It was love that graced her heart. She half-wanted to be cynical but fell into him, face buried in chest, arms wrapped around his bulk. He held on as if she might yet take her leave. Kissed her hair and neck, breathed her in. Envisioned their life together rampant with possibilities, a hope made of reclaimed kindness.

Fine Art and Benny Boy

Photo by Garry Winogrand
Photo by Garry Winogrand

Dear Henry James Harner,

I’m at the Everson Art Museum an hour earlier than we’d planned on meeting. I thought of leaving after a peek at the new exhibit which was baffling and wonderful. I hate to admit it, but it intimidates me being here without you. You’re the expert, right? I’m the neophyte artist; you’re the professor. The one who has guided me the past years, taught me the nuanced secrets of each skill I desperately needed to develop. Given me just barely enough encouragement, and thoughtful and expert if damaging criticism. I need to wait for you, should listen to your erudite exposition on Rothko, Haring, Rauschenberg, Johns, O’Keefe, Nevelson, and–well, you know.

You know it all. Or so it has seemed at moments.

Karin covered the page with her palm and sucked in her lower lip. She looked up as a lanky woman and dressy child walked by briskly, the little girl straining to free herself of the gripping adult hand. How she would have loved to be taken to art museums as a child. She had been to so many the past three years they were beginning to blur in her memory, along with the paintings, drawings and etchings she had completed and tossed.

But her parents had been consumed with working two jobs each, then critical sleep. Karin had cooked and tended to her younger brother. She had managed the household, in fact, from age eleven. The laundry, cleaning, cooking, tending to the mail and picking out bills due to give to her father at breakfast if she could catch him before he disappeared through the door. He’d give her a kiss on top of her auburn crown of hair and tell her to take care of it. She learned to forge her mother’s signature in time for all sorts of things, including the school days she had to stay home to take care of Benny with his chronic bronchitis. It was cold there, off the northern coast. The scattered homes huddled on a small island. In the winter, rain battered them as hard as wild winds and waves. As hard as their lives.

Benny moaned often those days. He was feverish and barked up gobs of phlegm and hobbled about for days on his skinny, bowed legs after each crisis. He liked to sit with her by the fire as he recuperated.

“You want to go to school every day, don’t ya? I don’t get it. Being sick is awful, but missing math and spelling is okay.”

Karin tucked nubby blankets closer around Benny and got up to tend the wood stove. “I can do my homework here. But I do like Mrs. Hilversum. The classroom. Just being there, the smell of the books and the fresh chalk and pencils nice and sharp. Talking about ideas.”

“Yeah, you like all that artsy stuff. Mom says you’re a born mainlander so will be leaving us.” He raised a sharp shoulder, let it fall again. “Easy come, easy go! You’ll be back.”

But he stared hard at her profile, then coughed enough that Karin refilled the kettle and put it atop the wood stove for more herbal tea with lemon and honey. She took the rocking chair and stared out the window at the sideways rain and wondered how her mother was doing at the alterations shop, her second job. The main on was the cannery where she worked with her dad, who was lucky to be a supervisor now.

“I can’t imagine living elsewhere, Benny. Where would I go?”

Karin closed her eyes and imagined everywhere else, China with its surging throngs and Norway with pristine fjords and even New York with Broadway shows and cabbies driving like maniacs and people rushing to fascinating places. She pulled her wool sweater close and crossed her arms.

“Who would take care of you?” she said then, voice going soft. She got a tea bag and clean mug, filled it, then sat beside him.

Benny sat up and turned to her. “I’m growing up, then I’m hightailin’ it for Seattle. Teddy said his uncle lives there and there’s a market so big you get lost in it, fish flying everywhere and gobs of flowers and all kinds of weird stuff for sale!”

Karin laughed and high-fived him. He settled down, legs and feet stretched close to the rotund iron-clad hearth that warmed the whole cabin.

“You should just draw, be famous,” he muttered and fell into a gentler sleep.

A sudden lump clogged her throat but she swallowed it, got up to finish the dishes and see if leftover pork roast could make a casserole. In two more years she would graduate. Mrs. Hilversum had talked of colleges and scholarships. It might happen, or it might not. Benny was twelve that winter and he got sicker before the spring. Karin missed school six weeks altogether and almost didn’t pull off needed As and two high Bs. Her mother was sorry it was like that, that they had to keep working to get just a little ahead but maybe next year the alterations job could be let go. Karin needed to keep at things the best she could and all would work out eventually. Her dad said little.

“Show me what you drew this week,” he said every Saturday morning.

And she showed him a sketch of Rudy, their bushy dog on the bed, and one of Benny asleep by the wood stove, blanket around him like a heavy robe, mouth hanging open. The final one was of their living room window with the radiance of a clear-skied sunset seen through lingering raindrops. It shone, Karin thought. It was made with colored pencils; she loved all those colors. She longed for paints but knew they were too expensive to use at home. And her time was limited, anyway.

He put on his wire-rimmed glasses and held the window drawing close, smiled and gave one nod, then handed them all back. Karin flushed with pleasure. He liked that one best, too. For one moment she thought how wonderful it would be to be this happy every day, making pictures and sharing them. Mrs. Hilversum thought it could happen if she would just get off that island.

If only. There was Kyle, her boyfriend, too. He didn’t want her to ever leave. He wanted her to work at his parents’ booming hotel with him and have their three children. Or four, he had amended with a wink when she looked at him dumbfounded. He said even numbers were better luck. Karin never thought in terms of luck. She thought about working like a dog toward a goal and making art and kept intact her long-guarded, though hard-to-keep hope of eventual success, whatever that might be. For her.

******

Karin looked at her watch. Henry would arrive in thirty-five minutes. She stood up, feet pinched in her one pair of high heels, and stretched discreetly, walked across the corridor for a drink of cold water, then sat again, notebook in hand as always. She wanted a coffee but didn’t want to leave. She needed to wait; they were to have lunch after the art museum.  She had put on her suit for the fine restaurant, wanting to look more than decent.

The art museum was chock full of fine work, of genius. Henry had informed her of so much, was a fine teacher, and his students gained appreciation for mediums and movements, even radical thinking over time. They learned how to discriminate, to re-tune their impulses into ones that unearthed different art than they’d believed possible. Karin was slower to latch on to things than some, he’d allowed, but when she let the Muse nudge her, she produced pieces that could astonish. She never liked what he liked quite as much. She missed a simpler format, the drawings that came from a meditative state, loose lines divining a kind of essence as her hand worked, transferring to the page energies that confounded but filled her as she went. Smaller paintings that whispered rather than shouted yet told more. Being away from home had released things. Being among a diversity of people helped her reimagine life. She came to even live differently. And Henry taught her requisite skill sets in class. Karin latched on to them, then carried them into another realm when alone in her dorm room.

Oh, she gave him what he asked for in class. She wanted to please him, he would brighten like the sun when she did. She wanted to do much more than commendably well, to graduate with honors. One day Karin would also teach well to pay bills. But her art would always win out in the end, at least in her innermost self.

They had met more times than she thought they would. Karin knew it was because he saw in her someone who should be loved by someone like him. Someone to shape her destiny and mold her ways. He was more like Kyle than Henry might think possible, a man with wants and needs and a deep determination to fulfill them. But so, too, did Karin have wants and needs and another vision that had begun to form and natter in sleep, then flutter in and out of her waking hours. She saw herself more alone than not. But he had eyes that gathered her to him with the force of an uneasy gravity, as if she had stepped into a place gone askew with enchantment. She had been warned by her roommate who knew someone courted by him. Had an affair and then was ruined.

She opened a clean page in her notebook.

Dear Henry James Harner,

I sit here and think of the times you held my hands and said, “Create something divine” as if it was your will that moved me to attempt something worthy. I would believe, feel your confidence in my abilities rush like new blood in my veins. You would buoy me when I faltered and then I would be certain you held the key somehow. It made things seem easier at first.

But you don’t hold any keys, not really. I do. I am the one who must and will do what I do, under my own steam. I see now that you feel powerful with me, not the other way around. I always feel just like myself, pretty comfortable, full of passion for a creative life, directed by an internal arrow of intention that must find its own mark. I may not be utterly fantastic but I’m alright with that. I’m working on it.

Your beautiful mind and body are distracting! I feel the brush of your lips on my cheek and it is like a heat that then freezes; I can’t think, can’t move, captive by your fascination and desire. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy for me to resist. I am young and have my dreams of love, the real sort–but I’m older than many students. My life kept me home five years longer but that doesn’t mean I was protected. I just never had time for fairy tale longings or endings.

I had to face that life comes with abrupt changes and at times demands a high price–and we’d better be equipped to withstand it all or just figure it out fast. An artist like me has had to puzzle it out more often than not.

There is so much you don’t know because it doesn’t fit your idea of who I should be. And that is sad to me. Because I’ve had some experiences that matter, too.

She took off her hat and scratched her head. She studied the words, then rejected them with a giant “X.” There was too much yet so little to say.

 ******

Will it stop this time?”

His hand clutched hers as he lay on the narrow bed. She smoothed his forehead and wondered when on earth her mother or dad would finally get home. He had been breathing like his ribs could barely support his chest or the very air that entered and exited with short miserable wheezes. She had given him the medications, gotten a wet washcloth to cool him. She had called her mother twice, dad, too, and the doctor. The doc was coming.

“What, Benny, tell me?”

“…scraping inside, lung sickness…”

He squeezed her hand tighter but it still was a soft leaf of a hand even though he was eighteen, a smaller and bonier eighteen than his friends. They had gone kayaking as they often did. The storm swept up with a vengeance. He had come home soaked and shivering, gone bluish of lip with a shadowy red circling his eyes. Benny had collapsed and not gotten out of bed for four days, then was up and about for two days, then that morning had suddenly failed to breathe right again and was so weak she helped him into bed again. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she had gone off to work at the hotel but they knew by now how it was; Kyle had given up long ago.

His weary gaze clung to hers. She thought of all the times they  only looked at each other, no speaking–because he couldn’t talk without coughing or she could think of nothing to say, or they knew what the other was thinking, anyway. So they glanced into each other as long as necessary. Now his eyelids closed hard, locked shut as if they couldn’t bear to stay open. She felt their heaviness; it claimed her shoulders, then heart and mind. Nothing had worked well enough the past week. Now his breath seemed to be slipping away, she could feel it not wanting to stay.

“Draw.”

Karin looked up but his eyes were still sealed shut.

“Draw, draw,” he whispered.

“What should I draw, buggery ole Benny boy?”

“Karin, aw…” He seemed to grimace at her babying him. “Boat, sea, sunrise.”

So she got her pencils and sketchbook and began the drawing, talking to him as she drew. He’d nod or his face would twitch but he couldn’t really talk, he had to breathe. It hurt her to hear the rasping, each intake one more cut felt on her own chest, a tattoo of pain that made her love him more, beyond the looming fear.

“I’m shading the sea, pulling out all my blues, I should name every one for you, huh? But soon the perfect sunrise will change all that big expanse. What will the boat be or do out there? I’m making it a sailboat, Benny, a Lightning–you, me, Teddy on crew, you can see the glint of light on your ole big blond head…I’m not drawing me or Teddy, this is your sailing adventure, okay?”

Her hand worked faster, forming lines; she felt she was compelled to infuse it with a sense of the island way of life they knew, that landscape so loved and loathed, charging the the picture with humility yet a palpable glory, their island peeking from the foreground. The sunrise was starting to spill over the far horizon and it felt warm even to her hand and she wanted Benny to feel this pleasure, the life that was unfolding when she heard the front door open. She kept drawing, fervency overtaking her, her created sun releasing its vivid sheen on the bland paper.

“And here is that sunrise, Benny boy, it rises for you,” she said, laying down gradations of orange, red, yellow. Transparent, lush. “That boat is sailing, it sails with you, Benny! Oh, I do so want to come along as it finally rides those magnificent crests to–.”

“Karin.”

But she was busy drawing, the page awake with life’s colors and forms as Benny’s eyes stayed closed–she knew that without looking, he had gone silent inside and out–and her mother took her hand and stopped the pencil and her dad knelt beside the bed and the doc came in and moved them aside.

Karin felt her mother’s hand, then her dad’s, parents and daughter a tight trio of family as the doc pressed a stethoscope on Benny’s chest, withdrew it, placed his ear close to Benny’s lips. Looked up and shook his head.

“Oh my ole Benny boy!” she called out, eyes squeezed shut, too, against the day’s terribleness. Her sketchbook hit the floor with a thud.

******

Fifteen more minutes. If Henry James Harner was even on time–he often kept Karin waiting, kept everyone waiting. Perhaps this was to cause an effect, perhaps it gave more attention to his entrance, or it made women more anxious to see him or told other men he was important and they owed him respect. But Karin lately found it sloppy of him, a lapse of manners. Especially since he had indicated he hoped to take her with him to the luxe hotel he had rented for the week-end. From the start it had intrigued her, this whole charade. It was so indirect and yet aggressive and she found it thrilling and disappointing at once. She was of an age when she could make any choice and own it. But he was not, finally, that appealing. As she waited in the museum, she had concluded he was even lacking in creativity. How much more attractive if Henry had been careful, approached her with genuine ethics, acknowledged the premise that she would never accept such a proposal from her art professor. That would have impressed her.

As she quickly left the building, her high heels clicking on the tile floor, she thought of the year to come and all that was yet to be accomplished. There was independent work to do, and one thing was a showing of selected art work. Karin had begun to choose ten drawings and etchings. Benny, she thought, likely knew the ones. She took off heels and jacket, entered the sweet, aromatic heat of a California spring, joy surfacing from many deep-sea places.

 

Coloring Winnie’s World

Coloring Winnie’s World
Photo by Padurariu Alexandru
Photo by Padurariu Alexandru

It was impossible, the color, but it was done. They came in and imposed their own signature right away, no questions asked. The only place on two blocks that stuck out. Every other house facade was a dingy whitewash or worn rusty brick. The street held a tinge of neglected gentility; its uniformity appealed to Winnie and her neighbors.

Of course they were artists, that’s what Simon told her and he should know as the owner and chief barista at Foglifter Coffee Bar. People stopped by on the way to city center, caught up with each other while in line, then again on the way home to savor the last caffeine of the day. She enjoyed it more when Simon had a free moment.

“Who?” Winnie asked. “Why?”

“I don’t know, they seem to be well known in some circles, mainly Marty’s.” He finished up an order then leaned on the counter. “As to why, I suppose they felt they could do what they wanted, having bought it, you know. We get to put our stamp on things a bit.”

“You don’t have to face a blaring bright house each day like I do. Marty likely talked them into coming here, he  does get around–have trumpet will travel, our local troubadour.  I’ll find out more.”

“You always do,” Simon agreed and winked at her.

You’d think she and Simon were true friends but often she found him distant or a tad overbearing, depending on time of day. It worried her it might be herself, but she’d decided it was how much caffeine he’d imbibed or how busy things got. She liked his cozy, packed place and often wondered about him. As she did everyone.  Winnie didn’t realize they developed a tolerance of her meddlesome nature, tempered by a degree of fondness.

She was a second grade teacher, a formidable taskmaster; her students complained. Their parents were glad of it. She wasn’t the best-liked but the children all knew essentials backward and forward and much more before they were moved on. Every now and then there was an exceptional pupil and he or she would make all her efforts worthy of the good regard. Still, she felt another function in the community was to keep abreast of what was happening. No one else paid that much attention. They knew the information would be forthcoming from Winnie. That it was wrong at least a good thirty percent of the time was irksome but understandable. It was surprising, though, that she had missed the paint job.

Simon watched her sway across the street, as if she had all the time in the world even though he knew she kept a hawk eye in all directions. He thought she wanted to dance her way through life in a world of common walkers–but she hadn’t quite found her rhythm yet. Yes, she had potential, and he waited for it to happen. Meanwhile, he did expect she would stir up some fuss about the Darlton’s place. Taking a pen from behind his ear to jot down an order, he smiled. If there was one thing Winnie didn’t take to, it was the unexpected. If only all could happen in an orderly manner with fair warning, barring weather and other acts of God. He, on the other hand, thrived on surprise, the lively commotion of it. He looked forward to meeting the new couple who felt compelled to cheer up the district. It had been a week but they hadn’t joined the coffee crowd yet.

As the day came to a close, Winnie sat by her front window and studied the freshly painted, shiny pine green door across the street. She willed it to open. They had moved in without her witnessing it, the one weekend she’d visited her cousin at the beach. She had to know who would take a perfectly good building and alter it so that is stuck out like a pesky dandelion wagging its colors at ubiquitous uniformity. If they were going to paint without asking first, what next? Would they wear wild get-up or have crazy parties into the wee morning hours? Would they talk with theatrical mannerisms or look down their noses at people like herself ? Artsy types unnerved her. Entirely. They just seemed…unseemly. This was the one thing unnecessarily irritating in her quiet and pleasant life.

Was that door ever going to open so she could lay eyes on them? Then she would hurry out with her strong handshake and investigative mind. She’d have to look them up on the internet if all else failed but firsthand was always more accurate, in her opinion.

When it did open, out shot Zachary Tomason. One of her students. Of course he might meet them; he was a nut about art, the only thing he really liked. He carried a lack satchel, the same one he took to school, though it looked light under his grip, held something else. He glanced her way; she waved. Zach may have seen her but he kept on, with daydreams crowding out civility.

Winnie heard the soup simmering on the stove top, vegetables with meatloaf leftovers tossed in. The hearty fragrance lured her and reluctantly she left her post.

Zachary came to the corner and looked both ways. He had visited the new people after his mother had talked with them when they moved in. When she said they were artists and made things out of stained glass and painted large pictures and made other things, he was excited. He asked his mother to take him to meet them. She raised a finely arched eyebrow then said why not, it only made sense he get his foot in their door. Mrs. Tomason knew her son had a gift for drawing but she didn’t know what to make of it yet. Maybe these new people would. So they’d gone to meet them and now Zachary was headed home while his mother stayed a bit.

It was like a miracle, he decided, and wished he could tell his dad who was salmon fishing in Alaska. It would be awhile before Zachary could share much of anything with him, but there was his mother and Simon, really his second dad as Simon was his real dad’s best friend. He was made his way to the Foglifter Coffee Bar. When he pushed open the red door, he came up against lots of legs, hands and elbows.

“There he is– Zach, this way!”

Simon came around the end of the counter, then they entered Simon’s office where the crowd’s murmuring quieted. The barista sat with hands on thighs and his bald head tilted. The boy was gaining an inch here and there, he looked heartier this year.

“Well? What did you think?”

“Did you know the Darltons have been to other countries to paint? And they have a few things in museums? Mr. Darlton makes things out of stained glass, he has a work place downtown with Mrs. Darlton and she has a small studio in their third bedroom, the light is good there, she says. For designing stuff and making small drawings. For imagining ideas, I guess.”

Zach paused for a breath as Simon tapped a finger on his lips.

“I did know some of it but not about a third bedroom being a studio. That’s cool. Did you talk shop with them? Did they ask to see your  art?”

Zach frowned. “How can I talk shop when I don’t have one? But they did ask to see my stuff or draw with them sometime. So I’ll show it to them.” He looked around the room excitedly then settled on Simon’s forehead, where his glasses were. “They’re awesome, Simon. They know everything, for sure. Real artists just a block away from me!”

Simon ruffled the boy’s straggly hair . An employee stuck his frantic face inside the office.

“Gotta go, Zach. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to show them.  Later, now.”

Zach wanted to tell Simon what was in his satchel but he left the coffee shop and ran home. Hi mother was just ahead so he caught her hand.

“Really nice people,” she said. “We’re going to be friends, I think, you and me and the Darltons.”

“And Dad?”

She laughed. “Well, maybe if Tony Darlton likes to fish! No, you’re right, Dad likes some art, too. I know he’ll be interested in the stained glass studio.”

“Me, too. I’ve got to see that.”

“What do you have in your satchel?”

“Just some junk Mrs. Darlton said I could have, you know, pencils and erasers and stuff.”

His mother squeezed his hand three times, the I love you code.

But what he had in his bag was better than just those things. He had admired a big sketch the new neighbor had made but tossed aside unhappily. Zach got the courage to ask if he could have it after he studied it closely. She said why not and he’d folded it up, put it in his bag: a picture of the street with all their buildings shadowed except for their townhouse which was left white, blank. All the neighbors were inside, he figured, asleep, just like he would be in a few hours. Dreaming of all the wonderful art that was being made in the world. Of what he wanted to make next. He  jumped up and down then sprinted to his house, his mother running after him.

******

The light filtered through her pink and green floral curtains but Winnie couldn’t bear it. Instead, she saw refractions of an internal light, sharp zigzags of it radiating about a tunnel of black. Migraine. She covered her head with her bedspread, then reached out for her phone to call in sick. Wait, it was Saturday, a small blessing amid a descent into agony. She succumbed to a swirl of dizziness and pain that encroached upon her being, floating in a dystopia of nervous system rebellion.

When the doorbell rang, she had been lying between sleep and the netherworld a long time. The visual symptoms has passed quickly but the headache, a jack hammer in her brain, had taken charge. She pressed hands to ears and turned to the corner, tried to rest more. Hours passed as she drifted, her mind filled with unsightly patterns and movement. She blamed the color  yellow across the street, having stared at it too long in the intense sunlight. She blamed the Darltons for painting it such a lurid color in the first place. Winnie blamed the boy for liking only art and acting bored in her class and her cousin for being broke and needy and her having to look after the neighborhood because nobody else bothered to keep track. Last summer she had called in a thief before he managed to steal a bike. The police had taken her information and thanked her. Simon heard about it and asked her if she had thought of being their full-time security detail. It had taken her a minute to realize he was poking fun at her. That had hurt her feelings but she had laughed along with him. He was, after all, a man she could admire.

She thought of the boy, Zachary. His astonishing talent. Because she knew that was what he had, an abundance of it. She never liked art or had any feel for it, herself. Her mother with her waist-length black braid and caftans that identified her  everywhere had been a big project person. She let it take up the dining room table and garage, take up her time and their meager extra money. She had wanted to be famous for her tiny birds painted on teacups, her useless hand-woven baskets, the ugly hand knitted sweaters she insisted they wear to school, the dresses that Winnie had to wear and then stuck out among the other girls. So she went to college out-of-state and never moved back. She could finally be who she was meant to be, a teacher. An ordinary, suitable, dependable person who helped mold children with simple but mighty rules of learning and living. It worked most of the time, this cohesive identity, and she rarely thought of her childhood days.

But then the Darltons came, likely dragging in unruly intensity as a penchant for vivid yellow indicated. And Zach’s education of all good things would be interfered with somehow, she knew it.

Winnie moaned and clutched her forehead. Curled up into a clump of misery and let darkness fall about her like a cool embrace.

******

“I brought them,” he said to the Darltons. “My drawings.”

He opened his satchel and held them out as his mother took a seat at the circular wrought iron table. They were all out front on Sunday morning. Winnie could just make them out through her curtains and open window, hear a few words. There were now white lights strung around the door and the windows, their idea of holiday joy. Winnie didn’t usually put lights up, too much bother for a short event. Further additions of a purple painted wrought iron table and chairs were set close to the townhouse, leaving barely enough room for walkers and bikes to pass by, how foolish. Cars would eventually crash into their decor, she was sure.

Purple and yellow! She squeezed her eyes shut. The pain had left a ghost of irritation but she was better, well enough to keep an eye on things a bit. Zach looked her way as she opened the window sashhigher. He waved first and she waved back, then drew away.

In another few minutes, her doorbell rang twice, then again. She got up just to avoid having to hear it again. She needed to disable it and put a knocker on the door. When she opened it, she pulled her robe close and squinted up at the man who blocked out the light.

“Oh, Simon… what on earth are you doing here? I just got over a migraine last night.”

He held a to-go paper cup of coffee in his hand and offered it to her. She took it eagerly; it might help diminish the migraine residue as it sometimes did.

“I’m sorry to hear it. But coffee will perk you up. I thought you should come meet the new folks. The Darltons. Just for a minute. Why don’t you see if you can find the strength to chat with us? If not, I’ll explain you aren’t well.”

“No!” Her voice surprised her. “I mean, no, don’t tell them that. I’ll clean up and put on sunglasses so I can at least say my hello.”

“Nice, I thought you would,” he said, grinning down at her in that teasing way of his.

When she got there with stomach clenched they had moved inside. She felt she might be better off going home and sipping coffee there but Simon answered and led her into a warm brick-hued foyer, fancy tiles on the floor. Then a turn and into a rich blue open kitchen and dining area. There was a garden outside a wall door that had been opened and a butterfly looped about, then out where Mrs. Tomason was admiring flowers.

“Hello there, I’m Rima and this is Ivan.”

The woman’s hair was sleeked back into a ponytail and she wore black pants and a white shirt. She offered her hand like a beautiful pale flower. Several rings sparked and glowed in the sunshine that poured through the windows and open doors. Winnie was glad she had her sunglasses on.

A medium-built man rose to his feet and nodded at her, indicating a chair. His black and white plaid shirt was open with a black Tshirt underneath. He wore jeans and finely made burgundy-hued loafers without socks. Winnie tried to not grimace. This would be a short visit, she thought, but responded with her greeting.

“Hello, I’m glad to meet you at last.”

“I think we missed each other on moving day, and it was painted right away. What do you think?”

That Rima was a chatty gal, she got right to the point. Winnie was caught off guard and coughed due to her unease.

“She doesn’t like it,” Zach said. “She likes things quiet you know, browns and beiges and grays not primary colors.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true, Zachary! I have a blue car. I like to wear pink and pale green.”

Mrs. Tomason joined them. “That’s true, you like blue and also dark green, I’ve noticed.”

Zach looked up at the ceiling where there was a new pattern of vines snaking through geometric shapes. She followed his gaze and felt the echo of the migraine in her brain. She thought how her mother would love this place, then though why was she thinking of her again, that was another time, another life.

The Darltons and Simon were waiting for her answer.

“I admit I did find it a shock. I guess I’m used to what has always been. I’ve lived here sixteen years now, the longest anywhere in one place.”

“That is something,” Rima agreed. “We tend to move every four years or less. To find new inspiration, I suppose, and to work on commissions. It gets easier to adapt when you find yourself in situations so unfamiliar. But we’re here to stay awhile now. I have a job at the university and Ivan found a great studio.”

“Ah,” Winnie said and gulped her cooling coffee.

“And you? You aren’t’ in the arts,  are you?” Ivan asked.

“No, she’s a respected teacher, remember? A good one,” Mrs. Tomason, said.

“I’m Zach’s teacher, second grade. Twenty years now I’ve been doing this. It’s worked out well.”

Ivan nodded, his expression indicative of surprise that someone would love teaching children so long but he was glad for her.

“She’s a cornerstone of our community,” Simon added. “A people person, someone you can count on to have a good ideas.  And an ace teacher.”

Winnie didn’t dare look at him in case he was mocking her. but then he came over and put his firm hand on her back and gave it a little pat. She felt the warmth of it and she suddenly found the room airy and inviting. Not chi-chi enchanting, thank goodness, but lovely in a gentle way. Simon removed his hand but she could still feel it there.

“You know, my mother liked to make things,” she found herself saying. “The house was always a mess of her projects, it aggravated me. But she was happiest then, I guess, making her arts and crafts. I just never got into it.”

“Well, maybe one day you’ll give it a try. Art is a sure bet for entertainment, if nothing else, don’t you think? We’ll have open houses, you can all come see what we’re up to, Maybe we’ll offer a workshop now and then at the community hall.”  Rima’s smile softened her angular features. “You must know about Zach’s artistic abilities. He has a real gift, you know.”

“Ah, yes, his drawings and so on. He’s a very good student–or he tries to be when not daydreaming. I don’t know as much about his art as some.”

“Well, I just made something for you,” Zach said. “We did some painting yesterday. Acrylic?” He checked with Ivan who nodded. “I thought you’d get more used to  bright yellow if you put it in your house and looked at it every day.”

He went to a broad table by the garden doorway and came back with a large piece of canvas board. He held it up in front of her to view.

Winnie’s right hand went to her chest and he left went to her mouth.

It was a painting of a tall, thickly outlined sunflowers, their perky faces turned to a bright sky, and sitting in the middle of that field was Winnie in her navy blue dress, the one she wore on Mondays. Her legs were crossed and she sat with hands in lap. A straw a straw hat covered her grey curls. Her round blue eyes were bright blue and gently smiling, a sort of bittersweet look as she gazed at the painter or observer. The world. This is what Zach thought, this is how he imagined her.

“What do you think?” Simon asked.

“We helped him out with pointers but it was his idea and his work,” Tony said.

“It’s his interpretation of you,” Mrs. Tomason admitted. “He’s fond of you, Winnie And he even signed it, see?”

Zachary placed the painting in her hands. “You like it okay?”

“I have never been given anything more beautiful, Zachary…thank you, dear.”

“Good, you can keep that one!” And he sat down in front of a plate of cookies and ate one.

Simon sat down beside Winnie. “I’m taking stained glass workshop after Christmas from Ivan. Why don’t you come along, try it, too?”

“I–I couldn’t, I’m all thumbs, I don’t have any talent at all! My mother despaired over me.”

Simon looked at her a long moment and knew she was wrong. She had lots of talents she didn’t even know were impatiently waiting to be excavated from beneath all that order, the monotonous sameness of her life. The mix of human fears.

“We’ll see,” he said. “There’s time to talk about it, get more information.”

Winnie sighed from her toes up. The migraine was behind her but she felt there might be more challenges coming her way. Not entirely unwanted ones. “Well, I do know I could use help framing and hanging this in my entryway.”

Simon, Zach and the Darltons gave a little cheer and said they’d help her soon. They brought out more cookies and a plate of scones and coffee for an impromptu first party, then opened the front and garden doors wide.