A Portrait of the Artist With a Younger Man (with apologies to James Joyce)
"It could be that Ebola, you know, " Ana said into her iPhone. She paused to light a cigarette. It was three in the morning. "You know, like they've been saying? I could have picked it up the last time I was in the City, in that horrible loft. My friend, my very best friend in the world, dying, absolutely wasting away in front of me. Six weeks in central Africa last summer shooting a film. But he didn't want to become a spectacle on CNN. It's all such a tragedy. Oh, what's it all mean, Kevin? I need to talk. Darling, I need you here. The woods are so dark and I'm sick and all alone. I think I heard Hecuba screaming out there in the night. She’s a city cat at heart. She might have been swallowed by a bear! Can't you come out here, now, tonight? Darling, I know it's late. But can't you be a sweetheart and come visit me?"
She paused every now and again to take a puff on her cigarette, a metallic, unpleasantly greedy sound through the phone line as if she were sucking the smoke in through a straw, or an iron lung. But she doesn't even have a cough, he thought. He ran a hand through his blonde hair, still greasy from sleep. He rubbed the light stubble on his chin. He sighed in despair, a near whimper. "Okay, okay, I'll be right out."
"Oh good. Could you be a sweetheart and pick me up some Old Golds on the way? I'll pay you when you get here. I swear I'll pay anything: a dollar a cigarette if you want. I'll absolutely prostitute myself if you'll bring me out some cigarettes."
"If you have Ebola or something, you shouldn't be smoking. I'm no doctor but..."
"No, that's very true, darling, you're no doctor.” She exhaled and sighed noisily and then returned to the wheedling tone: “Please Kevin, you're asking me to quit this very minute. I can't quit smoking now. It's absolutely the last thing I could face right now in my life. Please? Pretty please? For me, Kevin? Just please do it for me."
Outside his apartment house, his breath turned to steam and rose feebly up into the firmament, toward a starless night, toward a bleak and moonless heaven. The problem was that there were colors, and then there were Ana's colors. Blue, for instance, was always more than blue to her. It was, in its essential blueness, the opposite of blue, a shadow of blue, or the pure abstraction of blue, blue in its most sacred or at its most debauched, blue as it might first appear before the eyes of a child, or to a dying old woman hallucinating the blue corsets and parasols of her youth. Of all the nagging inadequacies he felt in Ana's presence, it was this that shamed him the most: the humiliating sense that he really didn't understand her art work at all.
He climbed into his pickup truck and started up the engine and paused to reflect upon his immediate future. Ana's cabin was fifteen miles from town, eight miles up a winding two-lane highway, five more on snow covered dirt roads. The last two miles were up a logging trail, a "goat road," as his Grandfather Percy called it. He'd have to walk at least the last mile of it. At the end of that goat road, at the very extremity of civilization, it seemed, Ana awaited her Old Golds.
Between her log cabin's two floors was a cast-iron spiral staircase and as he set out on the long journey, he comforted himself with the thought of those elegantly curving steps. Upstairs were the two rooms that together made up the locus of his and Ana's relationship. The one was her bedroom; the other, her studio. In both, he was in differing measures a supplicant, acolyte, disciple, voyeur. In the one, the expansive light from the windows facing south and the pungent smells of oilpaint and raw canvas filled the room and gave it the atmosphere of a holy place. For hours at a time, he studied Ana at her easel. She would chatter, laugh, dance, sing, displaying no more than the casual concentration of someone doing a Sunday crossword puzzle. But while she boogied and gossiped and crooned along with Paramore, Marvin Gaye or Patsy Cline, her light green eyes never left the canvas, except to flit occasionally, along with her brush, down to her palette for more color. Sometimes her eyes narrowed and she bit her lower lip and paused in her motion and squinted, sighting along the brush like an arrow, the bristle end moving in a slow circle, as if taking aim.
On the walls of her cabin was her series of oils on one subject: a black-robed woman with a blank white face, her state of mind indicated by her fearful black eyeholes, and a rouged mouth, twisted in panic. Most startling was the woman's own shadow looming behind her, becoming larger and more ominous in each canvas until by the last painting in the series the shadow had become a creature existing entirely independent of her. The woman was looking over her shoulder as if trying to glimpse the person pursuing her, never noticing her own shadow.
She said to Kevin once: "Somebody, some very rich man, wanted to buy the whole series, offered an obscene amount of money for them all. I said to him: 'What do you want to use them for?' He said: 'For my summer home on the Cape'. Can you imagine? To think of my work as decorating a wall somewhere. How ugly, how dull, how absolutely depressing. I mean, it’s the way the whole stinking world works and the art world’s no different, of course, but I just couldn’t give up my beauties. My agent just about had a cow." She laughed and went on, between puffs on her cigarette, between sips of her gin and tonic:
"An art critic in the Apple, a very famous man in art circles, you wouldn't know his name, told me that he thought the shadow was God. Do you think so, Kevin? What do you think? I don't believe in God myself," she said without waiting for his answer. "I don't believe in God," she repeated. "I believe in chaos. I think anarchy is our natural state. I'm an anarchist at heart. Really. I don't believe in rules, except the ones we choose to accept, and then we should be able to discard those at will."
And that was unfathomable, too: Ana's anarchy, Ana's chaos.
When he entered the convenience store, the clerk behind the counter jumped to attention and gave him an overly friendly smile, as if Kevin had just missed catching him in the act of robbing the till. The kid's smile turned conspiratorial when Kevin asked for the Old Golds, a smile implying that they shared a secret nocturnal vice.
He headed north toward the County Road. Snow began to fall, small flakes that evaporated rapidly on his windshield. His high beams danced about the darkened, slumbering houses of town and he felt as if he were the only creature alive at that moment, as if he were the lone survivor of a terrible calamity that had struck his neighbors in their sleep, or had caused them to abandon their homes at a moment's notice. All except the Farnham farm which stood like a sentinel at the crossroads where town and country met, the beginning of wilderness, the road to Ana's house. The Farnham barn was lit up at this hour as if the cows inside never slept, doing their cheerless work around the clock. He was born and raised amongst these people but had been away to sea and to college and knew them less now, was perhaps less of who they were, perhaps no longer of them.
During their first night together, she told him an odd story: about how her ex-husband had cheated on her on their wedding night. She had been too doped up on the medication she was taking to combat a flareup of her Lupus condition, she said, and too exhausted from the day's events, which had included a three hour Catholic High Mass Wedding, and a four hour formal reception with hundreds of guests, to have the energy to stop him from leaving. She told Kevin how she had cried for hours alone in bed that night awaiting her husband's return to consummate their marriage. And how he had not returned until the next day, and then had raped her brutally on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. Kevin listened attentively and sympathetically although, even while she was telling the story to him, he recalled the same plot from a movie he'd once seen on cable TV, including the parts about the Lupus and the High Mass and the cold bathroom floor.
But what did that matter? Ana was the only person he had met in his 25 years on earth who had real talent. Real artistic talent, not clowning around talent, not college talent. The only woman with real beauty, too, not the chintzy, perishable kind he’d fallen for in the past. Not like the pretty girls at Northampton who adored Emily Dickinson far more than they adored him. Not even the trio of silver-haired Philippine whores his bunkmates had bought him for his birthday. Until Ana, they’d remained for him the absolute paragon of female grace and power and beauty. Now the memory faintly ashamed him.
He first saw Ana in the health food store, while bagging her groceries. Her green eyes zeroed in on him from the end of the checkout line and, so it seemed to him never relinquished him. Up close, she asked his name and he noticed for the first time her mysteriously positioned mole, right beneath the nadir of her lower lip, near the left hand corner of her mouth.
She later said to him that the men who told her that she was beautiful - and he knew there had been many in her life - blinded themselves to her defects: the pitted, sometimes mottled skin, the overlarge crimson ears, her unmanageable, mousy brown hair, which, without a bandanna around it, had a tendency to look thin and matted and greasy, a body that had the requisite svelteness but was oddly shapeless, with curves and lumps not quite voluptuous or even feminine, and then there was the flabby chin, and the slight suggestion of a mustache on her upper lip. She suspected, she said, that she had the kind of beauty women appreciated more than men, because to other women she was like a magnificent mongrel, an extremely interesting and different way to look, whereas most men, she said, saw her as merely a mutt.
But whenever Kevin himself started to doubt Ana's beauty or her integrity on any other matter, he thought of that mole, that tiny brown button, like a talisman, a dark stain on the white down of her cheek, as vivid and inexplicable as the mystery of life itself. When they were first together, he would kiss it and caress it with his fingers for hours, if she let him, and when they made love, he would see it even when he closed his eyes.
The County Road changed from pavement to snow-packed dirt and he had to slow the pickup to take the bump. The sound of the tires went from the aloof hiss of rubber on tar, to a much more intimate throb, lower to the ground, a slight vibration that communicated itself through the steering wheel into his hands, as if the truck had become a beast not as easily controlled, a beast which might accelerate or veer off unexpectedly if he weren't sure and steady with the reins. Snow was falling heavily now. The road before him became indistinguishable from the surrounding fields, white on white, with only an occasional thin bank of trees, mostly pines and white birches, demarcating the terrain. A sudden lurch to the right or left on the greasy track would send him crashing into the trees and the oblivion of the whiteness beyond. After a mile or more of this he passed the Tylers' decrepit brown farmhouse on his left and next door, their faded red barn with its gangrenous skirt of rotting wood. He grew impatient to complete his mission, and allowed the truck's speed to creep upward, until the engine began to growl and shake and whine. After another mile, just over the crest of a long hill, two enormous shiny green objects loomed suddenly in his headlights. He stepped on the brake in panic before his mind had registered the source: the emerald eyes of a black and white Holstein, inexplicably standing by the side of the road, over a mile from home. The truck's back-end swerved sickeningly and began to fishtail and then he felt the truck go into a long, slow, nightmarish spin down the hill. His hands wrestled with the wheel, his foot tapped the brake lightly, repeatedly, "feathering" it, as the natives called it, the way he had been taught as a teenager in these very hills, on these very roads or similar ones. But they were useless motions; his initial panicky move, a misstep that had come quite naturally, disproved his upbringing, and had decided the issue. It was out of his control. He floated downward in a kind of lazy freefall, as if he and the pickup had become as light and insubstantial as the snowflakes descending around them, awaiting the cataclysmic impact with the ground, and he had time for a final absurd regret, that Ana would have to do without her Old Golds after all, before the truck gave one last vicious twist and came to a jarring halt, throwing him across the seat and stalling out the engine.
For a minute he lay on his side, breathing heavily, choking on the copper spit of panic in his mouth. Gradually, he became aware of a heavy roaring in his ears. A minute later he traced its source: the truck's heater fan. Discovering this was like coming out of a swoon. He sat up. The idiot lights gleamed at him accusingly from the dashboard, reminding him to, for God's Sake, check his oil and release the emergency brake before he went any further. He looked out the windshield and was amazed to see that the pickup was still on the road, though on the wrong side facing in the wrong direction. In the headlights he made out the exact track of his descent. He had pirouetted for nearly a quarter mile downhill. In the process he'd churned up a large amount of snow and ice and dirt, but he never actually left the road. He had been astonishingly lucky.
He started the engine. The truck came alive again with only a slight cough of protest, as if to excuse its clumsiness. He turned on the wipers and then he had to spend a minute trying to control the shaking in his hands. He was too delirious, too giddy to think clearly, to maneuver with the care needed to get out of this spot. His pulse beat high and fast in his temples. Sweat beaded lightly on his forehead. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something gleam at him from the floor in front of the passenger's seat. One of Ana's packs of Old Golds. Seeing them cleared his head a little. He reached over and picked them up, wiping the dirt off carefully. He tenderly placed it back in the small bag with the others.
He got out of the truck to survey his position. The snow, now suddenly intimate, fell on his neck and his blue down vest like tickertape, only the flakes immediately melted into nothingness and the odd feeling of insubstantiality returned. He made a complete circuit of the pick-up. His feet felt as light as if he were walking on one of the moons of Jupiter. Then, as if recalling a significant detail in a dream from which he had just awoken, he remembered the cow. It was out there, back up the hill somewhere. Agape with wonder and curiosity, he peered through the falling snow but he couldn't make out anything beyond the range of the headlights. It must be there, he said out loud. His voice made no echo, no dent at all in the cascading snow. The snow just kept implacably descending, separating him further and further from the cow and the hill and his near-brush with death. It was frustrating, as if he were somehow being cheated out of a profound experience. He must see that cow! He took two steps up toward the top of the hill but stopped himself. This is crazy, he said out loud. It was just a cow. Who cares what it was doing there? And this struck him as funny and he started to laugh and the laughter in turn filled him with a strange, reckless joy. My God, I was almost killed out here, he said out loud and this time he didn't care that there were no ears to hear him. He had survived, had survived to tell the tale. And who better to tell than Ana? He skipped back to the cab and backed slowly down the road to the next driveway and then turned around and headed for Ana's goat road. It loomed a mile away but he wasn't concerned. He would walk the last two miles to her cabin if need be. He felt immune to further danger. The only anxiety he felt was an impatience to tell it all to Ana, his great love. Only she could translate his experience into something real and memorable. Ana, who awaited her Old Golds, and him.