The Two-Legged Easel, Excerpts from Daedalus Monet’s autobiography:
(1.3) My father was born near an electric blender: an expensive one with many arbitrary high-speed settings. It startled him on more than one occasion as he lay sleeping in his crib. Later he was told (and had no reason to doubt the validity of it) that electric blenders were not yet invented at the time of his birth, and it was impossible that one should have startled him.
Upon reflection, he believed what he experienced in childhood was a premonition foreshadowing his death by electricity. Though a cautious man all his life, he was killed by ball lightning on a Tuesday. His curse has become mine, and I dare say his fate. Naturally, I too take precautions, and have maintained a lifelong distance between all forms of electricity and myself. (All except static electricity, which I keep in my closet among my sweaters and have rare cause to entertain.)
(1.15) The circumstance of my nursery shaped my early development. Its floor ran at a slight incline away from my play area. My toys were forever rolling away from me and, as a consequence, I grew up believing I was not intended to keep much in the way of material possessions. This gave me a predisposition to Marxist politics as a young man. I have since dispensed with these views in favor of pouch tobacco and gymnastics that can be restricted to a small portable mat.
(3.5) My interest in painting is a product of an accidental education. A narcoleptic farmer (sans arms) gave me a box of paints following his misadventure with farm equipment. Having cultivated few social skills as an idler with no ambitions, I had no one to give them to, so kept them.
(3.7) I would describe my painting style as unexpected, like finding a billfold on the sidewalk. If you were to open it in hopes of pocketing money, you would be disappointed. Still, there would be several names and addresses if you should be in need of a hot meal or a place to shower.
Aloysius was determined to take up Emma’s invitation to visit her studio at Arbor Hall, although the painter never entered into such understandings lightly. His problem with social parameters was an inability to distinguish between closed boundaries and boundaries that were either open or porous. For him, all boundaries were implicitly closed, despite evidence to the contrary. Except for scripted roles, where behavior and communication were well defined in impersonal terms, he experienced stress when he perceived himself as trespassing on others, even if the interruption was understandable.
Where nonverbal cues were forthcoming in these critical exchanges, Aloysius never presumed to interpret them positively, or even recognize them in some instances. The more personal and nonverbal the interaction became, the more self-conscious and hyper-logical he became. He rushed into these deathly voids with diversionary measures to dilute their significance, if not invalidate them outright. Even though he comprehended what was expected of him in key moments, he lacked the social intuition to act; and when he did act, it might be more in form than kind, or done with awkwardness, or with a show of inappropriate emotion. Every encounter was a cerebral exercise of weighing guesses and calculating his replies, which required exorbitant mental energy. His character was, regrettably, immutable, so if any salvation from his social agonies was in the offing, it would come only through an acquired familiarity with the young woman.
Morning wore the undimmed colors of autumn, though, in his nervousness to see the photographer, the suitor opted to drive rather than walk the scenic route. After parking his car, he came upon a stargazer lily lying at the entrance of the graduate studios. He glanced at an open window above and spotted more cut hothouse flowers in an azure vase, evidently intended for a painter’s still life. With a half-formed notion, the lily was picked up and carried inside.
Several unfinished art projects obstructed the primary corridor, which made for increasingly hesitant steps. Heavily cadenced voices approached from the other direction; one he recognized as Emma’s. The artist slowed to consider his options. He dropped the stargazer before the graduate student and Seth Bowles appeared at the corner. The preoccupied professor walked past his rival and trampled the flower; the photographer’s expression seemed less unfriendly.
The visitor grabbed at words. “I came by. Like you said.”
Emma turned to lead the way, though it was uncertain if she connected the castoff flower in the floor to him.
The graduate’s darkroom studio was little larger than a walk-in closet. A sawed-off table and piece of foam board, suitable for pinning up pictures, took up half the space. She yanked down several photographs drying on a strung clothesline and laid them in front of her guest. The feeling was one of wanting to get her made-in-haste meeting out of the way quickly. The painter looked over the pictures, yet could hardly concentrate on them.
Scattered, Emma picked up a toothbrush and started brushing her teeth at a basin. “I must look a fright.”
He was bound to say, “We can do this another time.”
“Nonsense,” she said.
Despite her reply, her demeanor was noticeably different from the day before. Perhaps she was troubled by his abandoned attempt to profess undying love to her with a flower.
As they stood shoulder-to-cold shoulder in the dim studio, the distracted teacher took in peripheral details of his pupil. Emma was not wearing makeup, and under a ratty brown sweater, her look strayed into mousiness. Women, to his thinking, were too malleable in appearance; and he was always late to discover what they labored to conceal. Peculiar to him, up-close-and-personal moments introduced an element of unreality to his perception, where the other party was reduced to an odd collection of affects and surfaces. He feared, in such self-conscious moments, his eyes would betray knowledge of a shared charade.
Seeking conversation, he observed, “You don’t use a digital camera.”
“No,” she answered. “Analog is more like an extension of my body. Digital is more...”
“Superimposed,” he injected.
“Yes,” she said, smiling.
He understood her connection to her body, albeit intellectually.
The photographer stroked her cardigan, apologizing for it, and then, with a divided mind, took it off and re-hung it on a nail. “Can I show you something?” she asked. Turning to the filing cabinet at her elbow, a coppery iridescent dress with fine gold-thread stitching was pulled from a drawer. The gown was held over her long, sinuous body in a preview of coming attractions. “The seam is out in a sleeve, so I got a good price,” she bragged. “I’m going to re-sew it, although I may not be able to get my bottom in it.”
Aloysius, who was mortified by the prospect of complimenting a woman for fear of being labeled a stalker, was provoked by her putdown of herself. “You must be talking about somebody else,” he declared unwaveringly. No precise reference to her shapely derrière was made, but just the breathless thought of it squeezed the spontaneous remark from his lungs.
The young woman smiled again before returning the dress to the cabinet. She then closed her studio door, making the intimacy between them a third person in the small room.
For all his shyness, the painter was serious in his stares of attraction, and only averted his gaze when the stare was returned. Generally he was so self-conscious about eye contact that he timed his visual exchanges, as to scientifically gauge an acceptable duration before looking away. It was like speaking English phonetically: He did not need to understand what he meant by it, only that the gesture convinced others he understood.
A piece of paper was pulled out from under the stack of pictures; Aloysius followed Emma’s weightier expression down to see the poem he wrote for her lying on the table. The photographer nonchalantly explained, “I found this in my car yesterday. It must have fallen out of your book. Unless you intended to leave it for me.”
He was aghast. How had the torn page fallen out of his pocket? What, in fact, did he give Amber in Chicago? Between this and the lily in the hall, he was playing an unintentionally broad hand. He was caught on it, either way. If he claimed he left the poem for her, she would know from his surprised look that he was lying. If he said it was an accident, his words would portray him as a coward in not giving it to her outright. He hedged. “It’s not finished.”
Seeing easily through him, the photographer tacked the poem to her foam board. “Then you won’t mind me keeping the rough draft?”
He would not embellish on what he wrote, so made a quick diversion of another picture in the pile. “Is this where we went after the party?”
“Yes.” Emma lifted the photograph. “This is Nadir Meadows Mound, where they have the annual Homecoming Bonfire.” There was an unassuming pause to add, “Would you like to see it in daylight? This afternoon?”
Aloysius need not express an opinion in the matter. The pecking order between them was established during their first outing to the mound.
Emma threw open the door, allowing radiant sunlight to reenter the room. Basking in it, she reached down in a space between the wall and filing cabinet to pull out a paper sack containing another dress. “Would it be horrible if I asked you to wait here while I freshen up in the bathroom?”
Time in her company was the most elastic of things.
The young woman was gone twenty minutes, and when she returned she wore an electric blue taffeta dress, complete with sensible sneakers. Her vintage dresses never failed to lend an air of elegant formality to her every endeavor, though their shabby patina succeeded in providing enough tarnish on the halo to keep her approachable.
The graduate student blew by him on squeaky soles, done up in makeup and glowing. After returning the switched-out clothes to the studio, she snapped shut the padlock on the door and bounded ahead like the youthful creature she could scarcely escape being. She stopped to pick up the wounded stargazer lying in the floor. “Thank you, Aloysius,” she sighed, clutching the crushed petals to her chest, “for the critique.” With the little joke, she floated out the double doors.
No arrows where needed to draw attention to what was transpiring between them. Such conspiracies require a measure of inattentiveness, although ambiguity for shy Aloysius translated into denial.
Reemerging on the sidewalk, the visitor detected movement above him. The blue vase was still visible in the open window, although the disturbance was likely a breeze stirring curtains. Nearing his car, he inquired, “What time is it?”
Emma squinted. “Late morning, I should imagine.”
Aloysius opened the door for his passenger, meekly pondering its handle. “Would you be interested in eating a late breakfast with me? Or an early lunch?”
She was effervescent. “Both.”
The photographer was overdress for the small Saturn, but it was a condition she was accustomed to given her own means of transportation. After a few minutes of driving, she placed the lily on the dashboard and picked up a slip of paper lying there. She neither smiled nor frowned examining it. “This looks like a woman’s handwriting.”
Aloysius had forgotten about Amber’s scribbled phone number, but was disarmingly quick. “I’m collecting samples of penmanship to edify myself.” He paused in all seriousness. “You saw my penmanship in the poem, didn’t you?”
Emma tucked the paper scrap under the flower and dryly concluded, “Then you will be a winning success at writing numerals in cursive.”
They were a mile past the electrical substation on the old country road when a pumpkin stand was spotted across from their intended destination. Seeing how the orange produce complimented her blue dress, an inspired Emma insisted they pull over to buy one.
A farmer with a clouded eye tended the stand, and was eager to make the most of his opportunity for conversation. “Where you off to?”
“Out to the mound,” the shoppers informed him.
The man gestured over the blowing cornfield. “That’s were I saw the flying saucer.”
The two adventurers paused in their search for a jack-o-lantern candidate to share a look.
The sputtering farmer continued, “They abducted me, suspenders and all, big as day, right out of my truck. Took me inside the mother ship and stripped me down to my best pair of Fruit-of-the-Loom. They showed me a map of the Universe. Looked like Jesus nailed to a telephone pole, all done up in Christmas lights and a tool belt. That’s when they turned the spigot on. Next thing I know’d, I was in the truck driving down the highway, big as day—only it was night. When I got home, my wife was in bed. I got in and slept like a baby.”
Aloysius handed the man money for a pumpkin, under the impression the story was over.
The farmer, rummaging through an oatmeal tin for coins, savored finishing up. “My wife had been dead for ten years by then, mister. Ten years.”
Emma was already toddling back to the car with their purchase in her arms; Aloysius joined her.
The farmer exclaimed in the background, “Someone should call the phone company and get to the bottom of it!”
With the pumpkin wrapped in an old blanket in his trunk, Aloysius was slow noticing Emma’s disengagement. She lifted her sunglasses like a visor. “Do you remember passing someone walking along the highway?”
Her friend followed her stare. A scarecrow-of-a-figure stumbled down the gravel shoulder about a half-mile back. “Let’s eat,” he replied.
The two returned to the front of the car with more pressing business.
Chapter Fifteen, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.