Caring is the ether of the soul, my dear, and mine has worn so thin that Iím now left to drift about its gaping holes. You having a child to care for is of no concern to me. You can tell your woes to somebody else, my dear woman; Iíve heard those bitter tales of shrinking expectations many times before. I take it you fancied yourself as a model or ballerina when you were younger. And before that, I gather, you were a studious child of doting, ostentatious parents who found refuge in their own smug, dilettante airs. You seem hesitant, my dear, with all this, not knowing whether to smile or frown. Like all women, youíre assured of your looks, but not your doings, and therein lay your vulnerability. Iíve seen your type before. You didnít have a lot of friends, but you had your string of ardent lovers each one a loner like you. You ended up marrying one of those lonely boys so to soothe his troubled brow.
Yes, Iím sure he is, but sadly, you left him because he no longer loved just you and, well, after all, he was unappreciative. So now you must scrounge for a living to support your blessed ward. Yes, Iíve seen this all before.
As for me, the only thing I care about now is my work and you, at thirty-three, are too old to suit my needs. I need a younger woman for my painting. A woman with a celestial radiance and such pure and innocent exuberance stirring in her blue eyes that it can revive even the most desiccated soul. Thatís what I seek. My next painting must be my magnum opus, my gift; you see, to this drab world, painted from the bottom of my despair and you, my dear commoner, mock the very act of my munificence.
Stand here by the light so I can see you better. Yes, just as I suspected, your tawny eyebrows and beige lips belie your henna hair. Your face is far too pale and wistful, like a mid-day moon, and your skin is thick, like that of a sow. You are more a milk maiden than the blue-blooded lady that I seek. You see the woman I have in mind has a peachy glow that can warm even the most wretched creature. You're simply not right, thatís all. Your lanky lines and milky complexion remind me more of a heron in the marshes than my voluptuous damsel in the field. Youíve probably never noticed the wetlands we have around here; have you my dear? After all, why bother with such outlying, desolated spots? Those lonely bits of lowlands lost between the sea and the mountains. I would go there in my youth. I found solace in those mud-lined sloughs breathing the steely blue breath of the ocean tides and I would get lost there among its courtly guard of red-winged blackbirds and its labyrinth of molting, rust-colored cattails. I found such a serene solitude there, a stirring silence intruded on only by the muffled chirps of birds and the slow crunch of peat beneath my steps. I had forgotten just how beautiful it is. Well, anyhow, you need not remind me of it now. I'm not painting a rangy, snowy egret pussyfooting through the wetlands.
Put that down, you nosy minx! Itís a gift from an Asian lady friend whose talent was to shrink monstrous spirits down into quaint jade figurines. Now she was a delicacy with coal black hair and matching eyes and ruby petals for lips and she would come to my studio late at night and wrap me in her silky robe like a cocoon and ease my troubled mind. She was a butterfly, learned in Chinese sculpture and the ways of the Tao. Now the Tao is a book you should read. It teaches the futility of strife. Have you read the Tao?
No? Well, anyway, Ling and I attended the Academy to work on our talents and explore the myriad of our creativity. Things were glorious until her obstinacy revealed its ugly self to me, spoiling all there was.
It was such a small thing, not worth mentioning. I was able to get her an exhibit at The Cave, a gallery on Eighth Street, through a colleague of mine. It was a tremendous opportunity for her and would have been an important step in her career. I couldnít imagine anything more desirable. But she refused my offer, refused to have anything to do with it. She just wanted to work in her studio and give her art away to family and friends as the mood struck her. Thatís what she wanted. How can you be an artist and not covet the chance to display your art for the whole world to see, I asked her? To be able to outshine once and for all those hacks who steal the limelight. The rewards of the gallery always outweigh the joys of the studio, I told her. But she sat there on her stool and stubbornly dismissed everything I wanted for her. I was to mind my own business, sheíd admonished, and so, of course, after that, we ended up going our separate ways. It was just as well as I was finding her reserved aloofness sorely clashing with my own. Thereíll be no rice paddies in my paintingsótoo bogged down in the mudótoo obstinate. I want the perennial vitality of wheat fields with its vibrant patterns of grasses energizing and uplifting the viewer to greater heights. You see a man can choose the seeds he sows, but not his hunger.
OhÖnothingÖjust mumbling to myself.
Disrobe and scoot it over there.
Cupping your breasts with the palms of your hands like a brassiere, my dear, is too modest a look for you. Drop your arms to your side and let them hang there. Your hair is too thick and reddish for my liking and too confined. Unpin your chignon so your hair drapes the sides of your face. I need a fine blonde crown for the woman I have in mind, with such golden tones and highlights people can see themselves in its sheen. As for you, youíre just another vague form I need to grapple with, a foil in my pursuit of beauty. So what am I to make of your long, shapeless legs and elongated waist? Iím not a magician! And those slouched shoulders of yours may reveal your German bent, but Iíve grown wary of such submissive postures with downcast eyes that only belie a cunning nature.
No, I wasnít reared on a farm, my inquisitive nymph. Why do you ask?
No, I just find wheat fields inspiring and offering up such vibrant patterns like a restless soul. But I did spend an idyllic summer in wheat country once on an archeological dig with a dear friend. She was a comely maiden, a wildflower that effaced the whole meadow. She had shiny fine strawberry-blond hair and crystalline eyes like clear mountain lakes. We lived as primordial natives in an uninhabited world, left to live by oneís wits. I would spend the days sketching and painting the enthralling enormity of the open plain while she collected and categorized the many artifacts and relics sheíd found in that ancient Indian mound of hers. On Sundays, weíd lounge atop her heap of antiquity, basking in the sun. I would fly a kite as she played her flute. In the evening, I would listen for hours to her stories about primitive rituals and sacrifices that she wove in such a magical way that they would transport me to another time and another place. Life was, perhaps, too beautiful back then.
Perhaps, yes, I know what youíre saying and perhaps I am being too nostalgicÖtoo romantic, but then again no. What a strange notion you had, but you just donít understand the depravity of it.
You see one day she had dug down to the remains of what must have been a medicine man wrapped in a bedraggled blanket with its skull embedded in the earth. I listened as she praised him in that calm, dulcet voice of hers as being the wisest and holiest member of the tribe. You see, he would bless the unborn child by drawing its spirit on the belly of the pregnant squaw or prepare the dead for their journey into the hereafter by painting a ferocious face on them to scare off evil spirits. But as I listened, I became increasingly more resentful of those empty sockets and jawbone that seemed to snicker at me from the grave. I grew enraged at the hoax that was unraveling in front of me and began howling at it like some wild animal that had been snared in a metal trap. What did this ungodly shaman have to do with life and death? I shouted at her. What did drawing pictures and singing hocus-pocus chants have to do with anything? Nothing! Absolutely nothing, my dear! I wanted to leap down into that grave and pulverize that impostor back to oblivion. But I was held back from my crazed folly only by the restraint of my bewildered and frightened lover.
After that episode, we tried to make light of my bizarre spectacle, but there was trouble brewing beneath our facades. I knew I had made an irreparable impression on her and I could see the wariness and concern in her eyes. We continued to pretend that nothing had happened and went about our work, but after a while she couldnít pretend anymore and finally felt it would be best for her to go, leaving me there impaled on that ungodly mound of antiquity. I was able, sometime later though, to exorcise that hideous demon that had possessed me so badly back then and its painting is hanging over there with my other black-and-yellow works. But I will never be able to exorcise that horrible impression I made on her, my beloved. Irreparable as it is.
Are you cold? Your skin is covered with goose bumps. I do keep the studio on the chilly side so to keep from dozing off in the late afternoon. Youíre too skinny, thatís all! Your breasts and buttocks droop from your ribs and hips and only accentuate your frailty. As for my emaciated condition, I can assure you it is out of choice and not necessity. You see, Iím liberating myself from the worldly appetites that tie me here and Iím getting quite accustomed to living without. A bed, a chair, and a hot plate are all thatís needed now, and, of course, my art. You know Iíd tried to trash my paintings a few times only to be restrained by my own arrogance and spitefulness.
I was, once, quite a promising artist, you know. My Prairie Schooners exhibit met with great acclaim and admiring crowds streamed through the gallery in record numbers to gawk at my work. The blanched tones of the monolithic backdrop and the rich, expressive colors of the yokel pioneers with their trifle stowage impressed them all and earned me great praise and accolades for my effort.
It was the scathing reception for my next exhibit Inanity that delivered the bitter abyss of disappointment and betrayal to me. It didnít get the adoration Iíd expected, even though it contained my most dearest and powerful works. The art whores panned it as being too subversive and blasphemous of all thatís decent in us and not worthy of my talent. The word was that it was not suitable for the tepid masses that needed on their weekend outings a milder look at their ill-conceived fancies. But Inanity wasnít an embroidered swatch of their mediocrity. It transcended it and catered only to the bare truth of existence. I should have been worshipped for my bold foray and not chastised like a child for it. It was the curator, in that slick guile of hers, who told me that the world was not ready for me yet. I could see her selling me out as she told me that my work would have to make way for that of a rich patronís nephew, who had put together a charming collection of circus memorabilia embedded in elephant dung and coated in shellac. Well, somewhere in the heat of that night words were said and toes stepped on and somehow her glass curio cabinet was pushed over. It was a scandalous deed, and indeed got me promptly kicked out of the social glee club for, you could say, singing out of key. I became a lemon in their saccharine world. And so, my dear madam, let me introduce myself, Iím a washed up has-been, an outcast, shunned by the haut monde and left alone now to live and work in my own private gallery.
Does my surly demeanor disturb you?
Like a lion cub huh?
It doesnít matter, for soon Iíll leave this carnal foil and dissolve into that roseate realm of undulating waves of pure color.
You find that amusing, my sweet? Your simplicity bemuses you. You know how distorting our senses are in deciphering the cosmic waves that guide us? Most people end up stuck in choosing the wrong wave, the wrong frequency, and inure its dissonance either out of duty or laziness. Well, I wonít tolerate such a fate, knowing thereís that perfect wavelength out there just beyond my worldly grasp, that perfect chord of harmony and of eternal bliss that is rightfully mine.
Well, yes, where was I? Yes, you have a commonerís head with a flat, triangular face with round, greenish eyes set too far apart.
Now thereís nothing here to get offended at, my dear. I mean, heads are rather amorphous shapes and faces are nothing more than an impression, simply a fleshy chiaroscuro bounded more by a look than the curvature of the bone.
Stop fretting! I just mean I havenít been able yet, well, to unveil yours. Unfold your arms and relax! And stop biting your lip. You have such a skittish manner about you thatís quite alarming. Letís get on with it. You have a large nose that runs straight down from your brow and gives umbrage to your narrow nostrils. Itís the striking of the nose, you know, that draws the whole face together. Has yours ever been broken?
I see, a proud woman. Do you have your father's or your mother's nose?
Most people know where their nose came from. Itís the most telling feature of the face. It makes you noble or common, kind or mean, enlightened or silly and needs to be drawn just right on the canvas.
Is there some joke beneath all this? You seem to find something humorous here.
Someone once told you your nose was like gossamer wings melded to your delicacies? I don't see anything amusing in that courting tripe.
No, I wasn't a boxer.
No, my nose isn't both my parents' heaped together.
You think so, huh?
Sometimes we're made grotesque by the beauty we seek. And since we're on the subject, your flanged orifice isóhow shall I put it...disproportionate to your other features. And, may I add your vulgar enunciations....
I was talking about your large mouth.
Yes, I thought that was quite clever. And your vulgar enunciations are....
My, arenít you becoming quite blunt! As I was saying, yourÖ.
Well, you think so, huh? And your surly vulgar enunciations are not very becoming, my dear.
It's vulgar if I say it's vulgar!
Quiet, you impudent imp! I decide what is right or wrong in this world and you need to get that through your head. After all, my little muskrat, Iím the artist here. I decide what fits and doesnít fit.
No, Iím not staring at you. Iím just trying to figure out what to make of that scathing akimbo pose of yours. It oozes with such defiance, such peevishness. Itís almost palpable. Youíll need to compose yourself, thatís all. Come over here and have a sip of wine. Here. Do you always use both hands when you drink?
Only when you want to, huh? There, a more relaxed mood suits you better. Tell me, who filled you with such pathetic nonsense about your nose?
Is he still trying to pass himself off as a poet? You know heís a butcher, donít you? And I donít mean just with the language. He could have at least come up with something more original, like your nose is the sublime wedge of your symmetry orÖ.
What? Dust buster for the brain.
A snoozerís trumpet, my, arenít you the comedian.
Finger warmer for the child. Thatís silly. Youíre a silly girl.
No, what did he bring you as a gift?
No? Was it prime or ground choice?
And you laughed in his face, I hope. Graciousness in the face of absurdity is not a virtue, missy. You should have told him where to get off. You should have told him youíre not a side of beef, but a gorgeous woman who demands respect!
Did I say something wrong? Itís just that smug look of yours has sort of thrown me for a loop. Itís a look I canít fathom.
Where was I?
Youíre a nurse.
You make a living by nursing and do modeling in your spare time. Well, nursing is a worthy profession and Iím sure youíre a wonderful mother as well.
Heís in a play, huh?
And his father?
A carouser, huh? Well, some men love their prowess more than its object.
No, Iím not making excuses, itís justÖI know the type.
Yes, theyíre ungrateful.
Yes, unappreciativeÖto have beauty at ones fingertips and not cherish it. Alas, most men donít know what they have. Indeed, most men are blinded by their own folly.
Yes, youíre beautiful.
Yes, youíre desirable. I like the tone in your voiceóthe zeal in your self-reassurances.
You saw my exhibit? What did you think?
Yes, it was moving.
Yes, filled with passion and truth, yes. Which was your favorite?
The Demimondaine of Broadway? That wasÖwellÖthe other one. You liked that splotching of grease and soot on her? It had meaning for you?
But now, how about you, my kitten, what intimate secrets can you share? Can you tell me how it feels to be beautiful? How it feels to know the difference between life and death, joy and sorrow? For me, those were always just elaborate contrivances I used in my self-imposed exile to pass the time. So what do you want of me, my sultry temptress? Iím just a washed-up artist who knows all too well the futility of my art, and yet remain a slave to itóunrequited as it is. So you need a servant now to do your bidding and I am here at hand. And Iím certain when weíre done, youíll dispose of me as quickly as you had conjured me up. Draw your hair back behind your ear so I can see you better. So you want your image emblazoned across a canvas for the whole world to admire. And it must be unblemished, pure, and ageless. Itís your vanity that leads you on, my dear, and time is your nemesis. But I understand. We all want to be beautiful and adored. Of course, for me, it must be indelible and permanent, where with you it must be with every click of the clock. And so now you need an artist to capture that beauty before itís gone. Thereís a warm glow in your cheeks that betray your vow of modesty, and the radiance of your scent fills the air and the glance of your eyes tell me such a portrait is an act most desired by you.
You disappoint me, my love. Why settle for a portrait, when you could be the gray eminence of my art? I find portraits so flat and dull, so haughty, so empty of the urgency of life. But my hands will gladly do your bidding since they seem to have their own volition nowadays. They can still take a lumpy glob of nothingness and burnish it into a sleek pool of such inspiration. There is still pleasure in releasing the intoxicating scents of oils on canvas as the hands go about their task. After all, itís the medium of touch that frees us all. So the hand will whip this palette up into a sumptuous mix of pink and smear that glow out over your womanly shape that moves so incitingly and sensuously about that nappy bend.
What do you think about all this? Any thoughts or comments? Youíve been awfully quiet. Nothing huh? Just waiting patiently for my pending kenosis? Scoot back a bit. Do you fiddle about this much at work?
No, youíre O.K.
No, itís fine now. By the way, what did you mean by calling me Ďgrouchyí? ĎPoop-headíÖígrouchyí, itís all the same. Is that funny? Giggling is verboten, my dear. There, a more contemplative look becomes you. I love your accent. Talk dirty in German for me.
I donít have the slightest idea what you said but it must have been funny. It wasnít about me, was it?
No, Iím not a child. But wait. The light strikes perfectly now. There it is! That chiaroscuro I spoke about. Itís there; yes I can see it now. Itís not there in the bone or flesh or in the curve of the cheek, but in that lovely visage of serene beauty that hovers so tenderly upon your face. Yes, beauty is the illumination of love, my dearóelusive as it is. Does this please you?
Iíve been struggling so long lately on my own self-portrait that I had forgotten the pleasures of just painting. Iíve been so wrapped up recently with my own malaise.
Donít tell me to shush. I am just thinking thatís all. I canít take such haughtiness, such ridicule. You know youíre not right for this. Youíre too common and prosaic, a mere woman of thirty-three with skinny legs and a child. You're nothing more than a diversion Iíve concocted to ward off this manquť state. Just another hole I've drifted into. I donít need your pity or your cajoling voice and sultry fumes that keep me here. Itís the woman in the field I seek. She must have unrivaled beauty with high rosy cheeks and understanding eyes and a clear complexion. She waits there for me in all her splendor in a field of swaying wheat, her chiffon dress flowing about her voluptuous form. And I will go to her and she will turn to me with remitted smile and outstretched arms. Oh, you wretched creature, why does your beauty atone for me so, but mocks my every deed? The woman in the field will have wings! And weíll soar up through the clouds and burst into that roseate realm of sweet vindication.
Are you listening to me?
You probably havenít heard a word I said. Here, youíve been fussing with your hair all afternoon. You have such thick hair like a sable brush. I still canít figure out if itís sorrel or chestnut.
Why cut it short?
Going for that sassy lookóa Ďdamn the torpedoesí look? Now a bob with those squinting, narrow eyes would certainly be saucy. You could be one of those spunky ice skaters twirling about so sensationally in the spotlight on the ice. Or a no-nonsense executive decked in a sleek business suit, leaving all those financial moguls drooling. Youíre not going to curl the sides out and have bangs like some vampy Freda, are you?
Hey, this isnít a chuckling matter here. Itís serious how you look. Do you want some spareribs and honey-baked beans?
Barney's is just down the street. We'll have to walk, though. My car's broken and I suppose I should fix on it someday. It is a nice day for a walk. Do you mind? I haven't been out of the studio for such a long time. I forget what it's like. Perhaps I'll buy a newspaper. I guess Barney's is open. Here, let me show you. Itís not what I had in mind, but Iím pleased with it. I'll call it ďAnna of the WetlandsĒ.