THE ART LOVER|
A Few of the Things I Know About YouYou were elegant, graying, distinguished, with a slight paunch.
You were cerebral, exacting, lively, passionate.
You were not old.
You were critical, cold at times, a little monstrous. Melancholy only on occasion. Intelligent. Your grayish eyes traversed great distances of time and space.
You liked Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky. You had a genuine appreciation for life and also a deep cynicism that struck me more often than not simply as good sense.
You had many passions. Women found you irresistible.
You were not old.
Things are not in our control.
One need not look very far to see what I am talking about. Look on any day of the week, on any page of the newspaper. For example:
Things are not in our control.
We see close up and also from a great distance, and we are dizzied by the constant shift in perspective.
We see close up. Walk down any street on any day in New York City. Men lie drunk and destitute on the streets. Women too, their shopping bags filled with their whole lives. This is not only on the Bowery anymore or other so-called bad sections of the city. Go to Madison Avenue. Everywhere a hand reaches out for money. From the gutter a hand at my ankle.
And now my father is dead. From the grave, a hand. I have come back to his house to settle what can be settled. A townhouse on West Eleventh Street in Manhattan. I am surrounded by his things-his papers, his extensive library, his coffee mug, his pipes, his brandy glasses. So little goes with the body of a man. So much is left behind. Canvases, paints, diplomas, hon- orary diplomas. In the bedroom closet three pairs of women's shoes, all different sizes. On his bureau his pocket watch. His second pair of glasses. His whole life before me-only he, strangely missing.
I am back in New York, his New York, my New York, after a full year away. I walk the streets. I have started reading the papers again.
It has become almost possible to skip the bad parts of the newspaper altogether. One can be reasonably well assured that in the Living section of the New York Times or the Home section or the Weekend section, one will be in relatively little danger. Beware though and proceed with care through Tuesday's Science section. Occasionally a Sudden Infant Death Syndrome baby will be slipped in or some detailed account of the latest antisocial behavior: autoerotic death, for instance. Finally, distrust most those stories that seem most innocuous, regardless of what section they appear in. For example: an article about a circus unicorn. Great, you think. Harmless. You're reading. OK. But the unicorn turns out to be a goat whose horns were diabolically fused together to make one mythic horn, center head.
I did not get to him in time.
In time for what? one wonders. We had cared for each other.
We had, it seemed, been saying good-bye our whole lives. From the time I was little and he called me his cherub. Even then he was saying good-bye, putting me into a painting, holding me afar and admiring.
Max, I had wanted a firmer grasp.
"She held very still," you always said.
You lived a good life. I believe, I have faith that you are in heaven. You were kind and generous, in your own way. I picture God's hand in yours.
I suspect that there are lots of new things to see up there, to comment on, lots of places to turn your intelligent, discerning eye. I believe you are in heaven.
Some days I notice on the Bowery that the men have lifted themselves up, at least for a moment, out of the gutter, the doorway, the broken stoop, have torn a shirt into strips for rags, have bought or stolen a bottle of Windex and have begun cleaning the windshields of cars stopped at red lights, for change. Another day I hear that a most unlikely fellow, the leader of a rock band called The Boomtown Rats, has come up with a way to help feed the people of Ethiopia. And buried in each Sunday Times is a map of the stars accompanied by a little star story. You can, if you like, simply by looking up into the sky, chart them with this handy diagram. This is one perfectly safe and reliable part of the paper.
But sometimes even the sky is dangerous. I look up and see your face in the stars.
"A neat trick," you'd say
I've been watching a building go up on the West Side. I'm especially fond of it because it looks like a tube of lipstick to me, though the fact of the matter is it's made of mortar and steel or whatever, it has no windows, the people who will have to work there day after day will not get any light, there's probably inadequate ventilation and who knows about the fire exits. But still I love that building. I want things to be beautiful.
I get stuck too easily Sometimes it takes so long just to finish one sentence in the newspaper. For example: "Because it is too early for peach picking in Western Georgia. . ." I stopped, just wanting to be there, imagining the roundness of the young fruit, feeling the early heat.
I have gotten distracted far too easily my whole life. The past year, away in the country at the Cummington Community of the Arts, I was stopped so often by blue flowers on the side of the road or by the ostrich plume fern or a stone wall. Or by a certain composer's interesting face or body. One loses one's way so easily. One is blue-petaled at the least suggestion, passing a field of gentians on the way down the hill to the mailbox. Staying there even as I take the mail from the box and attempt to separate it. One becomes irretrievably lost in the music, or the musician. One loses a certain analytic perspective.
I am a lover of detail, a marker-it's a way of keeping the world in place. One documents, makes lists to avoid becoming simply petals. I am like you, Max: a looker, an accountant, a record keeper, a creator of categories, a documenter. For evidence I rip flyers from telephone poles, save every scrap of paper I get. Listen carefully. Organize. Reorganize.
I open her clenched hand. In her palm a swirl of green, a fiddiehead fern, a small emerald of hope. No.
I am trying to regain my analytic perspective.
I began foreseeing his death in that recurring New England shape, that architectural sunrise, that starburst over every door, in the gate, in the churches. In the farmhouse I lived in. in the center of town. I started photographing it. There is a need for evidence. I saw the starburst in my face. I had a picture taken of it. In this pattern, this cool geometry, there was something about to explode. It moved inside my father's head. He had a stroke and died. I did not get there in time.
One wonders. In time for what? We loved,each other so much we felt it necessary, in preparation, to say good-bye our whole lives.
One becomes a blue flower, a mountain, a gate, a stream. The landscape is not stationary; it follows you around. And the dead? We shall see, I suppose.
"She held very still."
She does, she holds very still.
The landscape changes moment to moment like your face once did as you read, as you looked at a painting, as you gazed out the window. I often wondered if you were thinking of Mother, but I never asked. You would often catch me staring at you. I would say, "How much your face changes, Max." You would say, "It is essentially a matter of light."
I am back in your Village apartment, your enormous art history library before me. A few blocks away your students are just getting out for the year. Distinguished Professor of Art History, Chairman of the Department, you were always everyone's favorite, though you could not see why and regarded their affection with some suspicion. Even the beautiful ones-you kept a skeptical, a healthy, you called it, distance. You had many lovers, I know, but none of them were your students.
I picture God's hand in yours.
But other times I think no, you were not old enough to die. There was a certain spring to your walk. You must have sensed something. You were a sensitive man, but you gave us no warning. You were not that old. And there were children to consider.
"Children, indeed," you would have said. 1, the youngest at thirty. My brothers far away, having learned the lessons of art and distance you taught well.
I believe in one God the Father Almighty. And I have faith that you are in heaven, content with new visual stimulus.
You were not that old. There were many women after my mother. Right up until the end. You were a sensitive man. You must have sensed it. Did a young large-breasted woman lying over you whisper death in your ear? Did you try to ward death off, pumping yourself into her?
I did not get to you in time.
You lived such a civilized life. Life of beautiful food. Goat's cheese, artichoke life, asparagus in the afternoon. Wine-cellar life. Academic life. Book life. Life of the mind. And of the body. All those women, Max. Exotic, perfumed, the lovely white-throated night women, giggling, sighing, a shoe failing off a perfect foot, a silk stocking. Young pretty women, patting me on the head. I did understand. Oh, yes. I never questioned that you missed my mother. But she was dead, and you were a practical man of desire.
Can I miss the mother I barely knew? A woman I only vaguely recall? A patterned dress, a scent of spices, dark hair that fell around white shoulders. Is it possible to miss her, this phantom mother? No, I think not, you would say.
You mourned her and the part of your own life that followed her into the earth. This closet filled with paints, charcoals, paper, linseed oils, half-drawings, paintings of her, untouched all these years. With her death you closed that door for good, never stretching a canvas again, never picking up a brush.
"She held very still," he said. "She was a wonderful model, She never moved."
It was in this studio of this apartment, forty years ago that you would break for absinthe or sherry with my mother, first your lover, then your wife, never taking your eyes off her as she refilled the glasses and stretched her back. "She was always very still.
"How I cried for her abbreviated life!"
You must have loved her very much, Max. Was it hard for you, her terrible sadness? Did you try to put it on canvas, put it at arm's length, where it was manageable?
One wonders continually how to send an atheist like you to heaven.
It is most inconvenient of him to resist my best efforts.
For all I know he will never rise from this place.
It may seem ridiculous, but I go up to the roof, star map in hand, and look to the heavens. On a clear night it is still possible to see a constellation, a falling star, a lunar eclipse from West Eleventh Street.
"One gives up with a model like her. She was too perfect. She was a painting by Matisse. It was so hard to see her otherwise."
Max, it is time for wild leeks in West Virginia. Mustard seed in the Napa Valley. Sorrel in New York. You taught me all this. it's time for fiddleheads, those tender shoots of the ostrich fern in Western Massachusetts.
I think of death breaking like a star in your head.
I am going to write now, because I am a writer. I have already written one novel, published when I was twenty. I have seen it turned into a movie, have won several prestigious awards. I have just returned from an artist colony at the edge of the Berkshires. I went for a month, but I stayed for a year. I tried to write poetry. Had I not seen his death in the form of the rising sun everywhere, I might have stayed forever.
"Because it is too early for peach picking in Western Georgia, the boys who are missing cannot be considered safe. Twelve already murdered in Atlanta."
Do you denounce Satan?
And all his teachings?
For all I know you will never ascend into heaven.
I am going to write now. it is a way of telling the truth. Or nearing the truth.
The absolute truth? The literal truth?
Well, yes. Well, no. But something of the whole. Something of what it means to be alive.
I think of the family of father and mother, of two daughters, Candace and Alison, just a word picture for now.
Writing too can keep the world at a distance. One uses "one" instead of "I." One does not look long enough, or one becomes frightened, fainthearted. One turns flesh too often into words on a page. Turns Ethiopia into a gem on the tongue. The temptation is to make it beautiful or perfect or have it make sense. The temptation is to control things, to make something to help ease the difficulty. One checks oneself as often as possible, but death still whispers in my father's ear in the form of a beautiful woman just about my age.
But death is not a beautiful woman.
One wants not to have to struggle so much.
For all I know he will never ascend into heaven.
Writing helps, if you are intent on the truth.
She was a painting by Matisse, but she took sleeping pills.
The Truth Is, MaxAfter tearing the first page from the first book it becomes infinitely easier to tear the next one and then the next one. Now that I am in charge of the disposition of the estate, I have a certain right, an obligation even, to make use of it, especially the impressive art history library. After all I am the only one here, David in Italy and Grey still in Greece.
My sabbatical starts today, sitting on a pale blue blanket watch-
ing these figures gather before me. Notice how the space contin-
ually changes as one by one they enter the plane. Someone has
rendered each detail with such exactness and precision, the curl
on the young girl's brow, the neck of the man, the gentians at
Night FishingWe caught a lot of fish in the lake, mostly sunnies, which we threw back, but at night we would lay down the line that would sink way to the bottom, the line for the catfish. We would row out to the center of the lake in the boat to the dock. David would take the bait out of the Chinese-food container and put it on the hook on the bobbing dock. Only Grey stayed behind. I had two brothers, one who loved water, and one who loved earth.
I was a little afraid because in the evening we never knew whether the birds were birds or bats. When we were in the boat at night, my mother always wore a scarf on her head, with swirls on it, and'as Dad was rowing toward the center she would lean over and put her hand in the lake and she would make a swirling pattern.
Then she looked up. "There's a swan," she said. "There's a horse." And she traced the stars, making pictures in the sky. "And a bear. Everything's up there. There's a fish. Two fish. Swimming in opposite directions."
"At night you can go fishing in the water and you can go fishing in the sky," I said.
That was the last summer of her life. I was six and she was thirty, and the water swirled and the sky swirled.
The Floating ShapeShe was wearing earrings shaped like fish that dangled and they swam in the air when she moved her head. We were sitting under a striped parasol. "Parasol," she whispered. She put on a lot of lotion, even though she sat in the shade. I remember her rubbing it into her legs, her shoulders. I guess she believed the sun to be something that could burn her alive, like my father's stare. She leaned over and tied the strings of my sunbonnet. I remember her breasts. Her whole body leaning over. Her suit was red with polka dots. "One, two, buckle my shoe," she sang softly, tying a bow under my chin. "Three, four, shut the door." She put her knees up and looked out at the water.
Dad and David walked along the shore. David was pointing at things and dragging his plastic pail of water. Grey sat further back on the beach, digging deeper and deeper into the sand with his blue shovel. All over the beach children were digging passageways and tunnels and making enormous towers of sand that reached endlessly for the perfection of sky. She put on her hat, picked me up and walked to the water. She seemed very tall; it seemed we were very high up. She pressed me close to her and said, "Don't cry, please, don't cry." But they were her tears I felt on my face, not mine. She sat me down next to her and we let the water lap our legs.
"Swan," she said. "Can you say'swan'?" and she pointed. We watched a little girl pass in an inflatable white bird. Swan.
We sat there for a long while. She dug into her striped bag and took out a tube of lipstick and put on a bright pink. She blotted her lips on a tissue and showed me the lovely imprint. "Lips," she smiled and gave me a kiss. Lips. For a moment she held the tissue up to the sun, then let that perfect shape go floating out on the lake. "Say good-bye," she said.