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The Painter: A Novel of Pursuit

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                        I.

Monday July 29, 1991

I may have made a mistake in bringing April to the little cottage near the great expanse of water where the Potomac meets the Bay. She’s gay and playful and more than a little crazy, and Lord knows, I came here to get away from all that.

This morning, she makes me eggs and bacon. She’s intent on pleasing me, but also utterly adrift when it comes to things culinary. So it isn't her fault if she ends up with a pile of charred bacon parts and broken egg yolks splashed all over the stove. It’s a gesture, and I feel touched by the genuineness of it, even if the smell of bacon will be in the house for hours, maybe days.

April is forlorn, and has to be consoled, and made to feel as if her unfamiliarity with the kitchen isn’t so much a weakness as a strength, a charming frailty, an imperfection that sets off her otherwise impeccable allure. I’m obliged to hold her momentarily in my arms, and kiss the odd salty tear that rolls down her firm round cheek, and utter the kind of succor and comfort expected in such extremities.

But when her lips drift towards mine, I have the presence of mind to slip from her grip and get her to remember the elements of her agreement with me. Our relationship is to remain on a higher plane, and she can hardly repudiate the basis on which she came here.

Why not? she says, pouting and watery-eyed, a little surprised that I have the will power not to continue.

We agreed, I say as tactfully as I can, gathering up my paints, brushes and easel.

Jesus.

I came here to paint.

You can paint too, she says looking at me sideways. That won’t take all day.

April, I say, revving up for a formal statement, being an artist isn’t something you do for a few minutes a day like brushing your teeth or combing your hair. It's not a job with an eight hour-shift. It's a lifelong pursuit. Every moment is precious.

Your expression now, that’s what’s precious, she says with a well-timed blink.

The object of this particular game is to entangle me in her stratagems, so that we end up in an expense of spirit, a waste of shame. I take up my paints and run, in haste to escape the all-pervasive bacon fragrance of the little house.

                        –oo0oo—

The rest of the day, April is well behaved. She stays chastely in the house, leaving me in peace with my paints, my easel, my artistic ambitions.

When I return at dusk, I see that she’s cleaned the cottage from top to bottom, and even put together a modest but eatable evening meal of fruit and cheese.

Physically exhausted but mentally refreshed by a day with nature, I’m able to forgive her waywardness, her unrealistic expectations of the morning. She wears an apron, and listens wide-eyed as I explain yet again my theory of the fusion of texture and hue. When we’ve completed the meal, and cleaned the plates from the table, she says goodnight, and with a quiet peck on the cheek, she quietly goes to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

I’m tired, but also pleased to see the progress that she’s made in bridling her desires, which lie dormant, smoking rather like some recently active volcano, ready to explode at any moment. As it happens, if April had only known, I mightn’t have minded trying more than a little quiet conversation on this particular evening, and another bottle of wine, but I can hardly change my own rules now. Fortunately, there’s nothing left for me to do but go to my bedroom, fall on to my bed and sleep.

                        –oo0oo–

Tuesday July 30

As always, dawn brings fresh light on my thinking. From where I sit on the grassy bank behind our house, the other side of the inlet isn’t visible, and the mist makes a pale gray continuum of water and sky.

April comes and sits beside me.

The nest of ospreys on a platform in the water is still, as the mother searches along the edge of the river for food. A few herons and gulls are about, but they respect the awesome splendor of the morning with a deferential silence.

I’m touched at the wonder of it, and see confirmation of the fusion of texture and hue. It’s a simple insight that brings glorious order to a chaotic universe of infinitely disparate happenings.

April stays silent, and I begin to think that maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all to bring her here. For who else would have the presence of mind to remain quiet, and not spoil the primitive wonder of these instants with some crashing human banality? Certainly, none of the other women I stumbled across in my three years of college. Not only did these creatures drag me to their sweaty beds almost immediately on making my acquaintance, but worse, they seemed to feel the necessity to share with me their self-absorbed non-sequiturs at the most inappropriate of moments. All that’s behind me now, of course, but the memory of those grapplings and scrimmages is still with me, like an indictment of the life I’m trying to leave behind me.

You know what I feel like? she says.

I don’t reply, hoping she’ll grasp that this isn’t the time for chatter.

A cheeseburger with ketchup and mustard.

I glance at April’s face, but find no sign of irony in her wonderfully fresh complexion. Instead, there’s the intensely naive genuineness of a person who’s confessed a profoundly religious conviction.

She beams a look of gratification over the river, happy to have captured my attention. Fruit and cheese are healthy, but somehow I’m hungry. She shrugs her shoulders shyly. You know.

I hadn’t known, but now I do.

She turns to me. You don’t suppose McDonalds is open?

I don’t suppose it is, and tell April the alternatives – fruits, yogurts, whole grain cereals – available in our kitchen.

I guess I’ll just wait.

She says this so plaintively I begin thinking that with a little bit of ingenuity – defrosting some chopped sirloin, toasting some French bread, improvising with Brie cheese, turning fresh coulis de tomate into a home-made version of ketchup, and creating a béarnaise sauce – we could come up with a pastiche of a cheeseburger. Yet, as I think back on her failure with yesterday’s bacon and eggs, I can see that the enterprise will surpass the outer boundaries of her embryonic kitchen skills.

A wild duck flies by, quacking in exasperation. The sublime silence of the dawn has been violated, and I’m obliged to accept the inevitable: the melancholy mediocrity of the day has begun.

We could always make one, I say.

We could? she says wide-eyed.

Sure, I say, in a burst of chivalry. Come, I’ll show you.

I help her to her feet, and her hand seems to stay in mine, with no inclination to leave, as we walk back towards the house. In another stab at gallantry, I let her hand rest where it is, even though I know that her faun-like docility is a dissimulation, and that at the slightest opportunity she’ll spring tiger-like at my lips, and her tongue will be groping its way down my throat, and we’ll be well down a path that I’ve no intention of taking.

When we get to the door of the house, I detach my hand decisively and angle my back a fraction, so that as I open the door, April can do no more than give me a harmless squeeze on the arm. Before more trouble can begin, I quickly move over to the kitchen area, and begin preparing the cheeseburger. She stalks around the room in a feline fashion and eventually takes up a perch on a stool overlooking my activities.

You learn this stuff from your mother?

Hah! I sputter involuntarily, since the closest my mother ever came to cooking was putting a frozen TV dinner in the microwave. Such food as I was able to obtain as a child was the result of my own self-taught initiation into the mysteries of the kitchen. I have no wish to bother April with the embarrassments of my family history. I worked in a restaurant one summer.

Ah, says April expectantly. She’d like to hear more, but I’m too busy at this instant whisking butter into the béarnaise sauce to go into the intricacies of my brief dishwashing career. It must have been fun?

I grunt.

                        –oo0oo—

At last it’s done, and I get pleasure seeing her eat so greedily. Such an improvement from the languorous doe-eyed looks that she keeps throwing my way.

This was delicious, she says, now donning a seductive sinuousness like a silk slip.

My defenses come into play like reflexes, and my eyes narrow to slits. She doesn’t appreciate that she’s infinitely more dangerous without her smart artillery.

Her eyes brighten and the corners of her lips turn slightly upward. It’s good, even if doesn’t taste the same.

No?

The meat has a beefy taste, and the ketchup has a strange tomato flavor. We’ll have to change that if we go into the fast food business.

Her comment reflects her business school background, but I don’t fully follow her drift of it, and I decide to pursue the inquiry. Fast food? What would you do?

Nothing. I’d be the manager.

I see.

Take this morning. I want a cheeseburger. I don’t know how to cook, but you do. I’m the manager, so I recruit the needed personnel skills. And you perform brilliantly.

You’re the manager?

You know what’s going on, I think. Morale in our organization is high. Productivity is up. Just compare this morning’s breakfast with yesterday’s. That’s management.

There is a pause and she looks at me with a quiet sense of triumph.

The logic of her presentation is impeccable. Happily, there’s more going on behind that smooth brow of hers than I’ve gleaned up till now. So management’s happy?

This is yummy, she says, batting her eyelashes, and looking as little like a business manager as she can.

Tell me more about our business? April’s commercial venture is unpromising, but I’d like to know more about this management capacity that’s just been uncovered.

I’ve never had a cheeseburger like this before, she says, unwilling to be drawn in. Her eyes have that soft bedroom glow about them, and it is easy to see where this talk is leading.

I’ll be on my way, I say, getting up and moving briskly to pick up my artist’s gear.

Would you let me do you a favor? says April, following me.

If it doesn’t get in the way of my painting.

It could help, she says.

I’m making a show of getting my paints and brushes together, but I’m also all ears to hear what scheme she’s come up with.

Would you let me pose for you?

I stand up straight and April’s eager up-turned face looks for tidings in my eyes. She’s a shapely woman with plenty of nicely textured flesh. If I was into that kind of thing, she’d make a wonderful model. But one doesn’t need to be a genius to see that her objectives aren’t entirely artistic. These days, I’m concentrating on landscapes.

Suppose it rains?

I look outside. The morning sun is shining. It looks fine to me.

I’m just saying: if it rains. O.k.?

It’s hard work being an artist’s model.

I’ll be very still, and I won’t say a thing?

We’ll see.

You’re a peach, says April and lands a kiss on my cheek, and runs off before I can venture a correction.

I haven’t said yes, but she’s already celebrating, and obviously I should have been more definitely negative. Well, we’ll have to deal with the situation when we come to it.

            –oo0oo—

Despite the initial detour, it turns out to be a productive day, as one artistic problem after another is distinguished, sifted into its elements, and resolved.

The array of completed canvases now stacked in one of the spare bedrooms is growing apace.

Any day now, Jack Gates will come by and see whether I’ve done enough for him to spring for a solo showing. Jack is a friend of a friend, an ex-real estate developer, an unsuccessful sculptor who lost his artistic nerve and learnt how to be commercial in a business where true commitment to artistic principles isn’t necessarily consistent with earning a living.

There was a time only a short while back when I was wondering, worried, whether I’d have enough high-quality work to show. Now the rich profusion of pieces, each a new beginning in a different direction, creates the dilemma of selecting the best. I’d settled on twenty as the original objective, but now, twenty-six canvases of the first rank are already finished, and my brain is abrim with new insights, inspirations and perspectives. The day’s too short to do everything I have in mind.

In the evening, April senses the tornado of creativity swirling within me, and dutifully pays attention, as I explain the new frontiers that I’m pioneering. I don’t know whether she follows all the implications of my thinking, but she’s certainly willing to listen.

I go to my bedroom early and alone, leaving April in front of a sit-com rerun.

Wednesday July 31

April must have stayed up late, for there’s no sign of her in the morning, either at my dawn vigil down at the river, or during my breakfast of fresh fruits and grains. Television rots the brain, and in April’s case, this would be a pity, given the flight of imagination that made an appearance in her conversation yesterday.

The weather however is a mess.

Around lunchtime, a thunderstorm sends me scurrying back to the house. I’m anxious that my canvas doesn’t get wet, but even more that the question of April’s threat to model for me will come to a premature head.

Back at the house, she’s waiting for me, keen not to miss a trick. I could do it for you, she says.

I am sure you could.

You don’t think I’m pretty?

Prettiness isn’t the issue. Art has nothing to do with prettiness. I’m more likely to find true art in a pile of dung than I am in anything pretty.

What about texture and hue? With this, she’s sure she’s scored a hit, and makes her mouth into a moue and presses her breasts to the fore like a Barbie doll. You might see something you haven’t seen before.

I agree while explaining that art isn’t out there. It’s inside, in the mind of the artist. These days, the mind of this artist is in landscapes and nature, not in the cut and thrust of April’s bust, and I’ve no intention of fencing with weapons of this ilk.

I’m in luck. The thunderstorm finishes more quickly than our conversation, and sunshine comes to my rescue. I set out again through the squelching mud, and leave April to whatever she does during the day. I’ve wondered from time to time what that might be, although I’ve decided not to ask. Judging from the stacks of waxes, emollients, and creams massed in the bathroom, I think she must spend the day preparing her face and body for her career as mistress, artist’s model, chief executive of a fast food outlet. One evening, I quietly studied these products to get a better fix on the interesting herbal odor that sometime lingers on her skin. The key ingredients seem to be honey, aloe, and chamomile. Coping with all these concoctions must take her forever. I suppose I should be grateful that she’s expending all this effort for my benefit, if indeed that is the intention.

Focus! Commitment! Forget the counterfeit gleam of April’s glowing cheek. I’m painting the world to reveal its inner truth. Let others marvel at the evanescent charm of a butterfly’s colors. I’ve chosen the grub. Remember that!

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