Brogan Joe Murphy

Books

 
Pentimento Hearts

a novel excerpt

by

Brogan Joe Murphy

 

 

 

Pentimento - ( from the Italian, pentirsi, to repent ) The reappearance of mistakes in an oil painting the artist attempted to conceal.  Over time, the covering pigment turns translucent, and ghostly mistakes return to haunt their maker.





Book One:  Discovery

“Out of the dark confinement!

Out from behind the screen!

It is useless to protest--

I know all and expose it.”

Walt Whitman

Song of the Open Road


1.

Dingle, Ireland, March 25th - Morning mist drifted over frosted heather.  Two men trespassed on the tranquil dawn, stamping boot prints into the hoary dew.  Kelly-green grass and pitch-brown peat colored the tracks they left behind.  High above Dingle’s shrouded peninsula, they tramped along a ridge of mountain bog.  Strapped to their backs, French easels and blank canvases supplied their purpose. 

            Straggler of the pair, Ian O’Keefe halted, panting.  Feeling all of his fifty-eight years, his heart pounded in his chest.  His thighs ached, his skin prickled with the heat of excursion.  As if for breath, he turned into the stalwart wind.  His heart slowed to the cadence of waves breaking on the rocks below.  Gazing out along the horizon, the halcyon rose of the sunrise soothed him.  Farther down the escarpment, spectral patches of land faded in and out of the lavender mist.

“Hey, Murph,” Ian called to his companion.  “Hold-up there.”  He stroked his salty-red beard; the dewy whiskers felt strange to touch.  “What’s wrong with right here?  This looks as good a spot as any.”

Murphy turned around, wrinkled his face with query.  He scanned the landscape, his wispy, white beard sweeping with the wind.  The grizzled guide flashed a broad, toothless grin.  “Nothing at all, Ian me boy, nothing at all.  But sure and yourself will be missing a grand view if we settle for just good as any down here.”  He pointed up ahead.  “There now, eh.  See the wee bit of rock on the fairy’s side of the hill?  ‘Tis a magical place this time of the morning.”

Ian shrugged and acquiesced to the native’s informed judgment.  Murphy led on, stabbing each step with his blackthorn staff.  The American trudged behind, determined to keep up with the old codger. 

A twinge fired in the sinews of Ian’s memory.  He’d left California in such a rush... Did I remember to lock the studio, he wondered?   He recalled the quarrel with his wife, the back and forth about their finances.  Leaving Jenny just after the argument, he felt a part of him still with her, lashed to the harsh words he’d left behind.  Jenny deserved better, he thought.  But I’ll make it up to her.  Harry’s promised me a one man show, and nothing sells better than Irish landscapes.

Ian loved painting landscape.  He could become lost in the land, his consciousness drawn out into the limitless expanse of colors and textures.  The voice within him would fall silent, as pigment and brush became an extension of his vision.  Yet he missed painting in the studio.  Working with a model was so unlike painting a landscape... with another consciousness so near, the limitless expanse turned intimate, and a powerful presence emerged.  He sighed, remembering the last time he was with Nadia...

*   *   *          

Ian caught up with Murphy at the promontory on the south-west side of the mountain.  They set up, positioning their easels to take advantage of the North's invariable light.

           Ian squeezed a flatulent tube of viridian onto his palette.  He studied the landscape, a grim furrow shadowing his brow.   How is this spot any different from the last?  Shaking his head, he squeezed a mound of ultramarine beside the green.

           Soon the blushing horizon shed the last of its cloud cover.  Sunlight divested the drifting vestige of mist.  Ian rubbed his eyes.  At the cliff’s edge, an ancient ruin uncovered; its stones shone golden in the sun.  A palace for the fairies, he mused.

            Ian bent to retrieve a fallen brush.  Suddenly, a sharp pain pierced his back.  He shrieked as he fell.  Pigment, palette, and brushes flew skyward.

2.

Dobbins, California, June 28th - A cordovan wingtip stepped down, raising a plume of red dirt.  The second, more cautious shoe followed.  Harry Hassan grabbed the door, grunted and maneuvered his bulky frame out of the car.  Just ahead, the dirt and gravel road disappeared into the underbrush.  Circling his powder-blue Mercedes, he paused to rub a spot of dirt from a door panel.  Harry twisted one end of his manicured mustache, gauged the narrow road winding into the woods.  He sighed, retrieved a pair of bolt-cutters from his trunk and set out on foot.

Sunlight diminished as the foliage grew denser.  Harry stopped and wiped his brow.  Somewhere the dirt and gravel road had changed to a path.  Up ahead the path became a trail and split in two directions.  Strafing the woods with his gaze, trees and brush all looked the same to him.  Now what, he asked himself?  He’d never been to Ian’s studio before.  Jenny said it was a short walk from the road.  Did I take a wrong turn? 

A flicker of light signaled left.  Following the beacon, the undergrowth pricked at his clothes as he passed.  Up ahead, a golden, sunlit field shone through crannies in the wall of branches.  

“Finally,” Harry sighed, a few feet from the clearing.   He braced his Hermes tie and bulled through the red cape of manzanita.  Once in the clear, he brushed off his clothes, diagnosing wounds inflicted by the path.  Another glimmer of reflected light distracted him.  A mottled, gray barn slumped against the hillside.  Gleaming in the hot, June sun, a new padlock hung on its weathered, wood door. 

When he reached the barn, Harry hesitated.  Without word from Ian, he felt uneasy breaking into his studio.  But Jenny had insisted, and he lacked the will to refuse her.  Harry clenched the lock’s steel neck in the vise of his ungainly tool.  Snapping it felt more like cutting meat than metal.  He slipped the lock from its latch, pushed the door open.  An array of colors beckoned from the dark interior.

Hesitating, he buttoned up his Italian, linen jacket.   He peered inside and grimaced.  Farm implements cast shadows like sentries along the wall.  Sunlight drew oblique streams through the haze of dust.  A row of colored soda-bottles glistened behind cobwebs on the windowsill: blue, green, amber, and rose.

 Mindful of the dirt and tools, Harry stepped inside.  He noticed a scent of lemon in the air.  The newer wood of the staircase lessened concern for his clothing.  Heat swelled at the top of the stairs.  He loosened his tie, blotted his brow with a handkerchief.  Now cloying, the lemon scent had intensified. 
     Harry winced, retrieved his glasses from a pocket and pushed them back on his nose.  He didn't see her at first.  Frames, easels, and furniture blocked his view.  Maneuvering the barricades, he discovered her propped against the wall.  Naked and still, her breasts floated in a pool of half-light, her legs submerged in shadow.

 A chill grazed the nape of Harry’s neck.  He felt like an interloper, trespassing on some private intrigue.  Mouth agape, he meandered the studio.  Yet everywhere he turned, her haunting, pale-green eyes stared back at him.  Who was this woman?   

Wind rustled the leaves outside.  Starlings fluttered in the eaves.  The pastoral percussion amplified the silence of the room.  Harry’s eyes began to burn.  The lemon no longer masked the fumes from the chemicals.  He had to get out of there.  And he had to talk to Jenny.

            Back in his car, his mind fixated on the image of the woman.  Why didn’t Ian tell me about her?  And what about Jenny?  She must’ve known...  So, why not say something?  It wasn’t like her to dissemble.

            Harry recalled the disdain in Jenny’s tone.  “You’ll have to break the lock,” she said.  “His lordship’s never trusted me with a key.”

He merged into traffic, racing to his place in the slow lane.  The engine sputtered as charcoal-blue exhaust billowed in his rear-view mirror.  Harry bristled at the prospect of another visit to his auto mechanic.

Jenny’s voice intruded again.  “I can’t depend on him, Harry.  You know Ian-- he’s capricious, like a woman.  That may sound strange coming from me, but it’s the truth.  I need you, Harry.  I need you to do this for me.

*   *   *

Roads to the home of Ian and Jenny O’Keefe meandered along the rolling, Sierra-Nevada foothills.  Circumspect, Harry followed his directions as black asphalt changed to gravel, then to dry, red clay.  At the final turn, an old, wooden sign pointed right.  Only a few, faded letters remained legible: ‘Keef’.

   Harry found Jenny squatting under a wide-brimmed, straw hat, rooting seedlings in her vegetable garden.  He’d known Jenny O’Keefe for more than twenty years.  Yet time had only refined her beauty; her feminine wiles remained formidable.

  Jenny’s face enlivened when she caught sight of him bumbling through her gate.  “Harry!”  She stood up, her pink blouse wafting in the breeze.   Removing her gloves, she slapped the dirt from her blue-jeaned knees.  “I didn’t expect to see you ‘till tomorrow.”

A golden retriever bounded out from behind the house.  Harry defended his gabardine slacks from the dog’s exuberant, playful paws. 

Golddust,Jenny commanded.  Down, go lie down.”  She laughed.  “You look perfectly wilted, Harry Hassan.  Come inside.  I’ll fix you a tall iced-tea.”  She grasped his arm with both hands, fragrant with a musk of dirt, sweat and perfume.  Like father and daughter down a wedding aisle, she walked with him into the house.  “I take it you’ve come from the barn?”

Silent and pensive, Harry accompanied her into the kitchen.

            “Hungry?” Jenny asked, removing her hat.  Her long hair unfurled, black and streaked with silver. 

“No,” Harry lied as he sat down at the table.  He shut his eyes, flared his nostrils at the aroma wafting from the oven.   

Jenny traded her hat for the sun-flowered apron behind the kitchen door.  She prepared his tea with the grace of a mime, the deftness of a bartender.  Harry watched, cherishing his brief reprieve.  He abhorred confrontation, yet he knew his discovery in the barn could not be kept from her.

“What’s wrong, Harry?  It’s not like you to be so quiet.”

Harry winced, leaned back in his chair and shifted his weight.  “So tell me, how’s your old man?  Any news from the doctors?”

Appearing not to hear, Jenny set his iced-tea on the table, followed by a bowl of sugar.  “Are you sure you won’t have something to eat?  I’m baking bread.”  She smiled, touched his shoulder.  “Come on, Harry, it’s whole wheat.”

He huffed.  “It’s not the bread, Jen, it’s the butter.  And if I start I won’t stop.”  Pushing back from the table, he patted his girth with both hands.  “Look at me.  I’ll be modeling for Balzac before the summer’s out.” 

Harry dumped two heaps of sugar into his tea and stirred.  “So tell me, how’s Ian?  What’s he done, gone and joined the Republican Army?  How long’s it been, three months now?”

Jenny set out a plate of cheese and crackers.  She gazed out the window, her deep, blue eyes misting.  “I don’t get much out of him on the telephone.”  She sniggered.  “You’d think he was paying the bill.  They say he’s ruptured a disc, and that it’ll be at least six more weeks before he can travel.  They also say he doesn’t need surgery, whoever they are.”  She braced her arms as if chilled.  “Hell, Harry, I doubt he’s even seen a real doctor.  In that backward place, he’s probably consulting the local vet.”  Turning away, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. 

Jenny glared at the ground.  “It’s been over three months, Harry.  The trip he guaranteed would pay for itself is draining us dry.  Needless to say, he’s getting little work done.  Nothing you could use, anyway.” 

She shut her eyes, took a breath.  Then she removed her apron, adjusted her blouse, and sat across from him at the table.  “Enough of my tribulations.”  She leaned forward, bright and ingenuous.  “Tell me you’ve come with better news.  What did you find in that old barn?  Anything you could sell?”

Despite his dearth of business acumen, Harry Hassan owned and operated the most successful, fine art gallery in Sacramento.  If Harry believed in something, he could sell it; above all else, he believed in art. 

           “The woman in the barn...” he said, tracing the rim of his glass with a finger.  “All those paintings...”  Harry watched, gauging her response.   The dry cracker in his mouth turned drier still.  She doesn’t know.  Ian, you son of a bitch!  Now good old Harry has to be the one to tell her.  

Jenny gazed off, her eyes fixed, unfocused.

“Listen, Jen,” he sighed.  “I don’t get it.  I mean, it’s none of my business, but... hell, why don’t you know?  Why didn’t Ian tell you?  I know you say you never go to his studio, but even so, after all these years you’d think...”  Harry hesitated, biting his lip.  “And why not tell me?  Why keep it a secret, unless--”

Their eyes met.  Jenny glowered; Harry averted his gaze. 

            “Alright, then,” he said, after a short silence.  “You asked if there was anything in that barn I could sell.  Well, the answer’s yes.  Yes, indeed there is-- I mean, if that’s what Ian had in mind.  You see, Jen, the thing is...” 

Harry groaned, standing with the help of the table.  He brushed his forelock from a sweaty brow, walked haltingly to the window.  Amorphous, amber and purple fringed clouds collected along the horizon.  A splash of crimson spilled orange over the setting sun.  Harry cleared his throat. 

“Well,” he said, addressing the clouds, “stashed away in that dustbin of a studio, I found the most exquisite collection of artwork I’ve ever seen.”  He turned to Jenny, gesticulating.  “Oils, pastels, charcoal, pen and ink drawings-- it was incredible.  There must be over two hundred pieces.  Some are in frames... most he’s tucked away in racks and drawers.” 

 Harry noticed Jenny’s tumid eyes, wet with emotion.  He composed himself, returned to the table and sat next to her. 

“But Jen,” he said, softly. “I’m not sure Ian would want me--”   He slipped a finger inside his starched collar and loosed it from his clammy neck.  “I mean, the paintings-- they all have the same subject.  The model...  In each piece he’s painted the same woman.”

Abruptly, Jenny stood, crossed over to the sink.  She stared into the empty, stainless-steel basin.

At first, Harry’s words felt forced, like a confession.  Yet as he described the artwork, a glint in his voice betrayed his ebullience.  “Some of the work must date back fifteen, maybe twenty years.  You can see this woman grow older in the paintings.  Sensual, elegant nudes, every season of landscape, every nuance of portraiture.  It was overwhelming, seeing them all together like that.”

Harry walked up behind her, laid a hand on her shoulder.  “Christ, Jen, I’m sorry...  I mean, after all these years, it was just hard to believe you didn’t know.  Who is she, anyway?”

Jenny didn’t answer, didn’t move. 

Harry took his hand away, sat with a sigh.  “Listen, Jen...  I don’t know what to say.  Hell yes, I can use them.  They’re fantastic.  They’re some of Ian’s best work.”

           In the empty silence that followed, Harry heard the echo of words he wished he’d never had to speak.  The sun set; the room darkened.  When Jenny finally spoke, her voice was measured and clear. 

         “Her name is Nadia,” she said, hardening her gaze on the somber, twilit landscape.  “And no, Harry...  I never knew about the paintings.”

3.

Dobbins, California, November, 1990 - Adam Mickiewicz sipped his coffee.  Sitting in his ‘59 Chevy pick-up, he idled beside the road atop the fumes of his exhaust.  Maybe this time will be different, he told himself.

Adam waited for his fourth prospect in as many months.  The marker was the fruit stand, a quarter-mile past the turn-off to Highway 20.  Produce glistened, radiant as stained glass: jugs of cider, red and green apples, purple cucumbers, and yellow squash.  He’d pulled well past the stand to avoid being mistaken for a customer.  Settling back in his seat, he pulled down on the visor of his red, semper fi baseball-cap.   His truck’s noisy engine masked the arrival of a sputtering, green Fiat.

“Mr. Mickey?”

            “Huh?”  Adam started, spilling his coffee.  “Shit!” 

            An arm’s-length away, a stranger stood before him in a faded, brown-leather jacket and camel-hair cap.  He slipped a smile between his steel-blue eyes and wiry, red beard.  His left ear flashed a glint of gold. 

            “O’Keefe,” the man introduced himself.

“Mickiewicz,” Adam answered, stepping out of his truck.  “Adam Mickiewicz.”  A head taller, he towered over the stranger.  They shook hands; Adam’s brawny grip made the man wince.

“You’ll need to follow me,” Adam said, “The property’s not far.”

Gears grated as truck and roadster maneuvered their three-point turns.  Ten minutes and about as many turns later, they arrived at a clearing.  An easy breeze rippled through the golden, grassy field.  In the far corner, an old, red barn leaned as if weary against the hillside.  Eucalyptus trees swayed above its rusty, tin roof. 

Adam stepped out into the field.  Chilled by the wind, he zipped up his wan, gray work-jacket.  He started for the barn, his prospect following close behind. 

With his foot, Adam brushed aside the empty red paint cans that had collected by the door.  “She’s got a fresh coat of paint,” he explained, “but I’m afraid that’s the only improvement.  Good well, though.  Had it tested a few years back.  Thought I might build something here for my mom, but...”  He scratched at the course, black stubble lining his jaw.  “Guess I never got around to it.  Anyway, she passed away last summer.”

Adam cringed.  Shouldn’t have said that, he thought.  God, how I hate playing the salesman

“If you got kids,” he continued, “you’ll like the Dobbins’ public schools.  Our girls go to the Junior High.  Bus picks them up just a quarter-mile down that road.”  He pointed, but his prospect paid no attention.  For the first time Adam noticed the ponytail, dangling out the back of the stranger’s cap.  He’s not interested in this place, he thought.  Doubt he even has the money.  He sighed, yet decided to persist.

 “Seven acres in all, most of it fenced.  Borders our property over that hill.  If you want, I could show you the survey posts-”

O’Keefe pushed the door open.  Only one hinge remained attached; the bottom of the door scraped against the concrete floor. 

Adam cleared his throat.  “Still needs a little work.  But she’s got a good foundation-- heavy timber post and beam.  You could use the barn for storage, or a garage, depending where you put your house.”

O’Keefe disappeared up the ladder to the loft.  Adam groaned.  He pulled off his cap, ran a hand through his sweat-wet hair. 

“Mister O’Keefe?” he called out.

             His prospect reappeared a moment later.  “Where’s north?”

Adam clenched his brow.  “North?  Oh, um... that way, I guess,” he gestured.  “Opposite the eucalyptus.  Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering.  Is it always this dark in here?”

“Oh, yeah... well, with those trees over there, you don’t get much sun.  Maybe if you cleared away a few.  Suppose it wouldn’t hurt the view none.”

O’Keefe drew a question mark in the grime on the windowpane.  “I’m not all that interested in the view.”

Adam scowled.

“Listen, let me explain,” O’Keefe said.  “I’m an artist.  My wife and I have a home in Grass Valley, and we’ve no plans to move.  I’ve been trying to find a place for my studio.  Close enough to be convenient, but remote enough to avoid disruptions.  My privacy’s important to me.  Now, you said your house is just over that hill.  Do you need to pass through here to get to your place?”

“Oh, no, Mister O’Keefe, this place here is real private.  That road don’t go nowhere else.  And my wife and me, we keep to ourselves.  We won’t be bothering you none.”

“Relax,” he said.  “And call me Ian.  No need to sell me.  I love this old barn.  It’s just what I’ve been looking for.”

Adam’s face slackened, and half a smile emerged.  “Hey, and if you ever need help with your cleaning, my wife Nadia, she does housekeeping for some of the neighbors.”

Ian O’Keefe took a last look at the barn.  He pulled off his cap, tugged on the small gold ring in his ear.  “Any place we could get a cup of coffee?  I’d like to go over the details.”

          “Sure.  Poor Red’s, just up the road a piece.”  Adam hurried back to his truck.  It’s all in the timing, he said to himself, all in the timing.

4.

Dobbins, California, May, 1991 - Ian brushed her nipple where the breast flattened up against her arm.  The hardened nubble glinted with sweat.  Her breasts parted freely, the left hanging low near the arch of her hip.  She spread her legs wider.  He continued, each stroke firm and emphatic.  She moaned, shifted her weight. 

     “Katherine?  Are you alright?”
             “Oh, Ian, can’t we stop?  I don’t think I can keep this up.”

“Come on, Kate.  I’m almost there.  Let me finish.” 

        She yawned and dropped her head back.  Strawberry-blonde curls cascaded over her shoulders.  Her fleshy figure was a multitude of curves, each one giving rise to another. 

Between her breast and elbow Ian brushed a glaze of alizarin and burnt umber.  To strengthen the shadow and lose the edge, he added equal parts of medium and ultramarine.  Stepping back, he squinted, studying the different shapes and values.  His model continued to wane.  Ian quickened his pace.

“Hello?” a woman called out from downstairs.  “Mr. Keefe?”

“Come on up!” Ian shouted back.  “Must be my new housekeeper,” he said to his model.  “But never you mind, Kate my darling.  You hold that pose another minute, and I promise to set you free.”

*  *  *

           When the housekeeper reached the top of the stairs her new employer’s back was turned.  To make a good impression, she’d braided her flaxen hair in a tidy bun, buttoned her floral-print dress well below the knees.  Sitting before the painting on the easel, the artist turned to her with a wry expression. 

            “You forgot the O,” he said.  “It’s O-Keefe.”

“Oh...”  Her eyes enlarged as she caught sight of the naked model.  “Oh, my.”  She started back down the stairs.

“Whoa, hold on there!” the artist exclaimed.  “Come on back--  It’s alright, we don’t bite.  Besides, I’m almost done here.” 

             Creaking steps measured her cautious return.  The paradox disarmed her: knowing she was invited, yet feeling she did not belong.  All she knew to be right and proper told her to leave.  Yet the naked woman appeared indifferent, and the artist’s demeanor set her at ease.

          Disquiet gave way to intrigue as she gazed about the room.  She’d never known an artist before, and his alien world fascinated her.  His model was plump, almost fat by the measure of fashion.  Yet his painting revealed a natural, sensual beauty. 

She almost envied the model and artist.  They seemed so free, spontaneous.  And what had she to fear?  A woman’s body?  The artist’s brush?   As though stepping off a great precipice, she entered the room. 

“Mr. O’Keefe, then,” she said as her eyes swept about the cluttered studio.  “My name is Nadia, and I’ve come to clean...your barn.”

5.

 Gridley, California, August, 1991 - Inside the Celestial Coffeehouse, Nadia sat with her friend, Carol Yago.  Amid a rain forest of potted plants, posters and pictures covered the restaurant’s walls: rock concerts, folk-singers, far-left politics and far-out mystics.  Nadia sipped her tea trying to listen to her friend over the bustle of the breakfast service. 

           “‘His Lord said unto him,’” Carol read from her Bible, “well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’”  The words merged with the chatter of dishes and coffeehouse colloquy.  To Nadia, they were as incomprehensible as her melancholy.

                Carol stopped reading.  Coiffed like a medieval prince, chestnut-brown hair girdled her round, rubicund face.  Absent any make-up, her shiny complexion complemented her clean, wholesome appearance. 

              As if to tell a secret, Carol leaned over the table.  “We must trust our Lord to fulfill his promise.  Marriage is impossible without compromise.  You need to accept your station, and trust in the Lord to provide.” 

          Nadia avoided Carol’s prideful, amber eyes.  She knew her friend believed in what she said, yet the words sounded rehearsed, and scripted.  She closed her eyes with a sigh.  “This is not the life I wanted.”

Carol drained the last of her coffee, and smiled, sweetly.  “Of course not, my dear.  But you are in good company.  Our Lord accepts us with all our shortcomings.  So too, we must accept others.”   Holding up an imperious finger, she signaled the waitress to refill her cup.  

“Adam is a good provider,” Carol continued, “and he has always been there for you.  For goodness sake, he dotes on your girls.  You need to be realistic in your expectations.  He is a good husband and father.  That should be enough for you.”

“I know, Carol.  I am sure it should.”  What expectations, she wanted to know.  That, my dear, is the problemI have none.  How will tomorrow be any different from today?  

 The waitress shuffled over to their table, her stringy, brown hair days overdue for shampoo.  She topped-off Carol’s coffee and with a blithe glance offered Nadia the same.  She covered her cup with her hand. 

“But Carol, sometimes I wonder what I am missing.  I feel so... closed off from new experiences.  My life, my marriage... everything is so predictable.”

Elbow on the table, Nadia sunk her cheek into the palm of her hand.  “Adam and I hardly talk anymore,” she huffed, “at least, not about anything important.  Yes, he has been there for me, sitting in his precious recliner.  The only other sound is the television sucking out his soul.  I have no idea how to reach him anymore.  We no longer want the same things.”

Carol clicked her tongue.  “And what is that?  Do you even know what you want?”

Nadia closed her eyes, massaged her temple.  “I have lived for such a long time with so many rules.  They are like shutters I’ve kept closed for a storm that has long since passed.”  She opened her eyes, girded her gaze.  “I want to have new experiences.  Is that so very wrong?”

“Of course not, my dear,” Carol said, pursing her lips dismissively.  “Have you and Adam ever considered talking to the pastor about your problems?”

“Pastor Tom?”  Nadia scoffed.  “I thought you knew.  Adam will have nothing to do with him.  Not since that business with Sylvia.”

“Oh?  Does he blame the pastor?”

“Oh, no,” she sniggered.  “I am sure he blames Sylvia.  In Adam’s world, the marriage vow is a woman’s solemn duty.  He probably considers Pastor Tom the victim.”

            “Then why--?”

“The hypocrisy.  Adam could never get past it.  But then, he never has had a very high opinion of preachers.  Not even my father...”

“Then maybe you s­hould see the pastor.  He has such a wonderful way with words.”

         “Perhaps you are right,” Nadia said, hoping her agreement would put an end to the subject.  But she knew, no matter how wonderful, she would never find her answer in words.

6.

Dobbins, California, October, 1990 – In the chilled shadow of dawn, Ian painted at his portable easel.  Above his head a shifting breeze rustled the yellow leaves, swerved through the evergreen.  He pulled his black, wool hat over his ears, turned up the collar of his leather jacket.   A smoky, achromatic mist hovered over the forest floor.  Swallows flitted through the trees.  Somewhere in the distance he could hear dogs at play.

As the sun rose, Ian focused on the interplay of light and shadow.  He loaded a filbert brush with a mix of lead-white, alizarin, and manganese, defining the negative space of sky between limbs and leaves.  Then, to capture the scattering of maize, he churned a butter of cadmium-yellow, raw-umber, and yellow-ocher. 

Ian warmed as the sunlight settled in patches through the trees.  With his palette-knife he mixed a portion of his sky pigment with dabs of burnt-sienna and ultramarine.  He graded the mix from taupe to purple, chasing the changing colors of the bark and branches.  Minute by minute, the panoply of hues altered with the rise of the sun, warming opaque swatches of light as it cooled translucent shadows.  Soon the drifting, incorporeal mist faded from view, and the colors of dawn surrendered to the day. 

Ian hung his hat atop the easel, stepped back to judge his morning’s labor.  In the foreground of his canvas, a red-headed boy lounged in the bough of a great, black oak.  The boy leaned back against the bole, with a mischievous mien in his Celtic-blue eyes.

The barking dogs drew closer.  Before long, Ian felt their cold, wet noses nuzzling his legs.  “Hail and well met, big fellow,” he said, clapping the bony back of a fawn, Great Dane.  His miniature companion, a salt and pepper Schnauzer, swept the ground with the broom of his beard.  The Dane was first to lose interest in the artist.  He nudged his playmate, pinned him with a paw.  Freed with a bark and bite, the terrier jumped up and down, nipping at the Dane’s lanky limbs.  Ian’s entertainment halted abruptly.  The Schnauzer scampered off in chase of prey, with the stolid Dane lumbering behind. 

Ian resumed painting.  Another visitor approached.  The shuffling of leaves halted a few yards away.  The breeze, now perfumed with lilac, piqued his interest.  Yet he did not turn from his task.

“Where’s the boy?” the woman asked.  The voice was familiar.

“With his mother, I hope.  Is that you, Nadia?”  Ian spun around and smiled.  “Mrs. Mickey-- Good morning.”   He dropped his sable brush into a jar of muddy turpentine.  “Hey, I was beginning to think I might not ever see you again.  Seems like the only time you come to clean is when I’m not around.  You trying to tell me something?”

Dressed in a faded, denim jacket and jeans, Nadia’s amber-blonde hair flowed loose and free over her shoulders.  Raising an eyebrow, she tucked a golden strand behind her ear.  “Mrs. Mickiewicz,” she corrected.  “And I hardly want to risk walking in on you and your naked women.” 

Ian stepped back from his canvas.  “Well, now...  I don’t always paint them without their clothes.  And besides, as you can plainly see,” he gestured at the painting, “I don’t always paint women.”

Nadia shivered, held her arms.   She drew a step closer to the painting.  “Is this your son?” 

“Sitting as still and quiet as you will ever find him in the flesh.  He’s my youngest.  And as that carrot top attests, he has the misfortune to take after his father.”

“Oh?”  She squinted,  and examined the painting.  “Why misfortune?”

“Well, more mine than his, I suppose.  But then that’s a father’s curse-- you know, you’ll have a boy, just like the boy that tortured dear old Dad.  He’s a great kid, but he is a handful.  Fortunately, his older brother takes after his mother, so we have at least one we can keep up with.”

Ian picked out a fresh brush and resumed painting.  “Were those your boys that passed through here a few minutes ago?”

“Abraham and Isaac.  Yes, I am afraid they are.  I was taking them for a walk-- or rather, they were taking me.  I hope they did not disturb you.”

“Heaven’s no-- they put on quite the performance.  And if Abraham’s the Dane, he may be about ready for that sacrifice.  Your little Schnauzer sure gives him a hard time.”

“Abraham has his limits,” she said.  “Every once in a while, he’ll give Isaac a good beard trimming.  Did your son grow restless and leave?”

“Pauly?  Oh, no.  He was never even here.”

“Oh?  Did you paint him from memory?”

             “Not really.  I transferred the figure from a pastel I made in the studio.  I just thought he fit rather well in this old tree.” 

Ian turned and flinched, startled to find Nadia co close.  While his back was turned she’d approached to within a few feet. “What do you think?”

“Me?”  She touched a hand to her breast.  “Oh... it’s wonderful.  He seems quite at home up in a tree.  Did you plan it that way?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “not a plan, per se.  Some of my better compositions are more like... happy accidents.  But the more I paint, the more I learn.  To paraphrase Titian: it takes a lifetime to learn how to paint.  But you need a second life to paint what you want to paint, once you learn how.  Unfortunately, we mortals have to squeeze it all into one.”

“Titian?”

“A sixteenth-century, Italian painter.”  Ian grinned.  “Famous for his paintings of naked women, among other things.”

As Nadia studied his painting, Ian studied her profile.  The morning chill had left her cheeks flushed.  Her nose was crooked, her chin small, the cheekbones asymmetrical.  Unbecoming in isolation, her features coalesced into a singular beauty.  Under her jacket, her ample breasts filled out a supple, peach sweater.  

“Is it difficult to get children to pose?” she asked.

“Huh?”  Buffering a flush of libido, he yanked himself back.  “Oh-- well, mine may be more used to it than most.  But posing’s difficult for anyone.  I sometimes use photographs to augment my work with a model. Though they’re a poor substitute for a genuine presence.”

He started painting again.  “Once, awhile back, I shared studio space with a number of artists.  To cut down on expenses we took turns posing for figure studies.  And whether sitting or standing, with those bright, critical eyes fastened on you, you felt the hard edge of the moment... a consciousness shared between artist and model.”

Nadia wrinkled her face.  Ian grinned.  “But there I go, running my Irish mouth again.  I’m sure you’ve better things to do than listen to my esoteric blather.”

“Me?  Oh, no-- not at all.  This has all been... very interesting.  It is just that--  I am afraid most of it is over my head.”  Nadia caught him staring, turned away.  “Besides, I am the one who has intruded on--”

“Not at all.”  Ian smiled at her.  She averted her eyes.  “It’s been nice to have the company,” he added.

“Well,” she said, starting to back away, “I should probably be going.” 

Captivated, Ian watched her turn around and back again, lithe and buoyant as a dancer. 

“I should be collecting my boys,” she said, “before they get into any more mischief.”

“Oh, right.”  Ian frowned as she turned her back again.  “Say, Nadia,” he called after her, “before you go...”

She faced him, still backing away.

“Could you do me a favor?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said, halting with a cautious smile.

Ian stared at the ground.  “The next time you come by the studio...”  He hesitated.  “Do you think you might consider posing?”  Adding in earnest, “I think you’d make a marvelous subject for a portrait.”

“Oh, my...”  Her eyes widened.  “I... I’m really not...”  She winced.  Then her eyes found the ground.  “It’s just that, well...”  

Ian sensed she searched for a way to say no.  And though he stopped himself from voicing further argument, his inner voice would not be stilled.  Say yes, his heart seemed to shout.  The pith and impulse of his feelings startled him.  Their eyes met, and for an instant, a curious prescience passed between them.

“Maybe, I could,” she said, “if you think it worth your while.”

“Great.”  Ian clapped.  “How about next week.  Say, Tuesday morning?”

Nadia rolled her eyes.  “All right, next Tuesday then.”  She started to leave again.  A few yards away she turned around, arms akimbo.  “But, do not be thinking you will get me up in any trees.

7.

Dobbins, California, October, 1990 - When Tuesday arrived, Nadia found herself standing at Ian’s barn door, hesitating.  Apprehension swelled in her chest.  An overstuffed, canvas bag hung from one shoulder, yet it was the prospects of consequences that weighed her down.  Why am I doing this, she asked herself, stopping her hand from knocking?  Just then, a shaft of sunlight illuminated the door. 

Nadia shut her eyes.  How can I expect anything to change, if I am unwilling to try something different?  She turned around, visored the sun with her hand, and scanned her surroundings.  The empty landscape affirmed her solitude.  Who but me will ever even know?  This is my life, my choice. 

Nadia knocked on the door.  No one answered.  She sighed and knocked again with the same result.  Pushing the door open, she called out, “Ian?”  Cautiously, she stepped inside.  Climbing the stairs, she wondered, do I have the wrong day? 

Upstairs, Nadia found Ian hunched over a pastel drawing.  Headphones covered his ears.  She walked up and tapped him on the shoulder.   He swung around in his chair.

“Nadia!” he yelled, and then yanked off his headphones.

She raised an eyebrow.

“Nadia,” he repeated, moderating his voice.  “I’m sorry.  You startled me.  I didn’t hear-- I mean, I was listening to Mahler’s Ninth and--”  He grasped his forehead with the palm of his hand.  “Was today the day?”  He scowled.  “I must’ve lost track--” 

“I can come back some other--”

Oh, no, please.”  Ian smiled.  “I’m glad you’re here.  I could use a breather.  Just let me clean up a little.”  Lifting the pastel by its corners, he laid it on top of a cabinet.  He hurried to the sink and began scrubbing the colored chalk from his hands and forearms. 

“How much time do you have?” he asked. 

“As much as you need.  May I use your bathroom?”

“Help yourself,” Ian said, distractedly.

           A few minutes later, Nadia returned wearing her bathrobe.  She noticed Ian had placed an upholstered chair on the platform.  He had also masked the windows with black cloths; only the skylight remained uncovered.   Now, bent over with his back to her, he rummaged through a cardboard box. 

Nadia stepped gingerly onto the platform.  “Do you want me to sit here?”

“Gotcha!” Ian exclaimed, holding up a piece of charcoal.  Just as he turned around, Nadia dropped her robe to the floor.  Naked, she turned aside, crossing her arms over her breasts.  She awaited his direction.

The artist stood motionless. 

“Ian?”  Nadia rubbed her arms for warmth.  “Shall I sit here?”

“Just, um... sit however you’re... comfortable.” 

 Nadia sat in the chair and crossed her legs.

             Ian stood suspended, hands clasped over his head.  He parted his lips as if to speak, yet said nothing.

 Noticing his bemusement, Nadia’s face slackened.  Is this not what he wanted  Does my body disappoint him?  

 After an awkward pause, Ian shrugged.  “Alright, then… I guess I’ll warm-up with some gesture sketches.”  He crossed the room, shuffled through a cabinet and retrieved a sketch-pad.

 Nadia frowned, hugged her knees.  The chill raised goose bumps on her arms and legs.  “I hardly think you are the one that needs warming.” 

            “Huh--?  Oh.”  He winced.  “Right.  Sorry-- hold-on a sec.”  A minute later he located a space heater and positioned it by her feet.  The appliance whined and crackled until its element glowed red.

 The qualms Nadia anticipated never appeared.  She tried to remember... What did Ian call it?  ‘The hard edge of the moment.’  She perceived her body as never before: a sense of her volume and weight, the tactile boundary of her skin.  Her consciousness felt separate, yet within, as though she inhabited her body for the first time.  And she experienced a strange exhilaration, sensual not sexual... a guileless wonder... deep, and primal. 

  Though her nakedness set her apart, she was not alone.  Ian’s penetrating gaze passed through her, into her.  Clothed or not, he beheld her as no man ever had, not as an object of desire, but as the subject of his art.

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