It was strange seeing Emma completely at home in his house, although there was little in the way of a womanís touch to welcome her. She gravitated to his kitchen and started going through cabinets. Boxes of sugary sweet cereal dominated the pantry, as well as shrink-wrapped packages of ramen noodles. Catching Aloysiusí bewildered stare, she justified her intrusion by declaring, “Not enough whole grains and vegetables.”
The visitor eventually made her way into the living room, and with no less attention. Her expression hovered somewhere between amusement and bemusement while she assessed his negligible imprint on the house. His lifestyle more closely resembled that of a schoolboy left to his own resources by vacationing parents than that of a cloistered monk. “You need a plant,” was her diagnosis.
The bachelor shrugged.
Lastly she strolled to the foot of the staircase and gazed up its two flights. Dimness crept down the well to mirror the track of a cloud over the house. Aloysius looked toward a window, dismayed. “It’s going overcast…”
“Well?” she interrupted. “Aren’t you going to show me your studio?”
The resident gathered courage and stepped around his guest to graze a skirt pleat. On reaching the attic, Emma returned the favor by gliding past him. The door nudged open with a creak, and the change of mood could not have been more dramatic. Aloysius’ paintings took on a macabre glow under the graying skylight.
The visitor was bowled-over by the wealth of detail before her, and was both excited and perplexed. She stared at one outlandish monster for several seconds, and then at the reserved, conservatively dressed artist. Highlighting the disconnection, she confessed, “I would never have guessed you painted like this.”
Aloysius made his customary apology. “You don’t find them disturbing?”
“They’re that, too.” She was quick to add, “But not all paintings have to be pretty in the usual sense.”
Examining one work closely, she thought to play psychologist. “It’s interesting horses frighten you when you choose to paint monsters.”
Aloysius grinned. “Just because I’m terrified of horses doesn’t mean I don’t admire their beauty.”
“I’ve never of thought of beauty as something scary,” she pondered.
He made a diversion of his CD player. “Would you like to hear something beautiful that isn’t scary?”
Emma smiled to see his boyish glee.
A mournful piano tune filled the studio. “This is Schubert’s unfinished Piano Sonata in F sharp minor,” he explained. “One movement. Played by András Schiff as the composer left it.”
“Unfinished?” Emma said slyly. “Like your poem.”
He was already absorbed in the music.
She took the interlude to study the half-unpacked boxes in the floor. Many contained books. Not all the books were about art, though most could be related to the paintings in some way. The subjects included anatomy, botany, birds, medical illustration, typefaces, and circus memorabilia. There were also atlases and anthologies, as well as various reference books. She picked up one, The Eighteenth Century Background by Basil Willey, and was surprised to discover its margins filled with copious handwritten notes.
Aloysius was content to let her rummage through his things, as though her actions were choreographed to music.
Boxes not containing books contained hundreds of CDs, alphabetized by composer from Albinoni to Zemlinsky. Plastic organizers filled with tchotchkes and other curiosities were among the few things unpacked. Collections were sorted by tray or Ziploc bag, and included rocks, fossils, seashells, broken glass, rock salt, plastic army men, plastic insects and fish, rubber monsters, brightly colored beads and trinkets, used-up markers and pens, old toothbrushes, old candy, game pieces (minus their games), and random doll heads and toy fragments rescued from out-of-doors. Hundreds of pages of Aloysius’ comic artwork occupied the lower shelf of a built-in bookcase, and these were sorted by board size and project. Dozens of spiral bound notebooks were less organized, and doubtless due to overflowing pages of frantic writing that were not easily sorted.
To the visitorís mind, it all weirdly fit. The art and artifacts were part of an artistís studio that rightly belonged in this room. Yet beyond the bedroom and kitchen downstairs, the remainder of the bare-walled house served no purpose. The tenant assumed ownership of the property and its furnishings upon moving in, much in the way a chameleon assumes the character of a backdrop. It was perhaps truer to say he was a squatter hereóone wary of being found out.
At the abrupt but poignant end of the piano piece, she commented, “Beautiful.”
Aloysius smiled to share one source of inspiration with another. “Schubert is to music what Vermeer is to painting. There is light and shadow in his sonatas, but no real destination. He leaves you very much where he finds you, only deeper in the landscape.”
Emma puzzled aloud. “Why don’t you hang your paintings downstairs?”
He thought on it briefly. “I feel exposed by their extravagance.”
“No one would think you vain.”
He offered no defense of his view.
One of the painter’s cardigans lay across a chair; the photographer put it on without calculation. It was the frank, artless act of a young girl where, in laying siege to an article of clothing, her biochemistry took possession of a scent. Loathed too read too much into it, Aloysius distracted himself from the evolving dance steps by staying close to the CD player when another sonata commenced.
Emma knelt down to look into one box away from the others. It was crammed with see-through folders containing clipped magazine and catalog pictures of attractive women. “Do you ever need a model?” she asked innocently.
He looked up, feeling the ballet floor tip under his feet.
Emma turned to face him. “I would be happy to model for free if you’d fix me dinner sometime.”
The painter’s attempt to string together a response was painful to watch.
She continued, less confidently. “In the nude, of course.”
Turning off the CD player, he glanced at the skylight window. “We’ll have to run to beat the rain back to the car.”
She also stared at the threatening weather. “Or we can wait it out.”
His eyes remained fixed on the clouds.
Emma moved away from the last box, putting distance between herself and her offer. The host started rocking unconsciously in place; his level of unease distressed his guest. Her next question cut to the heart of everything he had allowed her to see. “Is there a destination to you, Aloysius?”
A crack of lightning seared the windowpane overhead.
The startled painter, seizing on the drama, dashed to the studio door and looked down darker stairs. Leaves scampered across the living room floor. He rushed down ahead of his companion to find the backdoor blown open; a black-knuckled thundercloud bore down on the courtyard, tearing at its blanket of compacted leaves like sentient skin. Stepping on the stoop, he exclaimed on seeing Emma catch up, “Quickly!”
The couple ran from the house back the way they came. The occasional lightning strike added incentive to speed their return to the car, but they were winded from their earlier jaunt and the two flights of stairs. The landscape turned to nightscape more swiftly than either would have thought possible, and by the time they reached the side of the mound, both were practically crawling to its summit with bursting lungs.
Emma seized her companionís arm at the top, slowing to smell the rain that was about to overtake them. The shrinking sky ahead had turned a shade of periwinkle, and low-slung sulfur clouds, the color of butterscotch, formed a calamitous furnancework along the western horizon.
Aloysius tracked the remaining stitch of light to see a rangy figure staggering towards his car below.
“He followed us!” cried Emma.
The dark sea captain—with a face of gleaming death—cut a stark profile against the pale, turbulent grass. He staggered clumsily, but methodically. It was going to be a whisker-thin finish to beat him to the vehicle.
Aloysius pulled Emma down the slope. With wind and momentum at their backs, they were running as fast as they could together on hitting the bottom of the hill. The car, however, cut off their view of the man. Both got in on the driver’s side—Aloysius in the front and Emma in the back. Large splattering raindrops began pelting the windows in a preamble of what was about to come.
She was breathless. “Where is he?!”
The driver reached over to lock the passenger door just when the watery avalanche crashed down, yet he too saw nothing of the ghoul. He shifted the car in reverse, though was unable to comprehend what lay in front of him. The cadaver captain rose in the high beams, blurring like ink under the wiper blades. He planted a boney hand on the car hood; Emma screamed.
Aloysius punched the accelerator and flew back to hit the other side of the lot. By the time brakes were applied, the car overshot the perimeter to land in thicket. He shoved the stick shift into drive, but the front wheels spun unproductively in loose dirt.
The lumbering zombie made for a kaleidoscopic image on the wet windshield. It was impossible to lock him in place. Emma was about to squeal again when the car tore away from the dampened ground. The driver steered wide in hopes of not hitting the fellow, but the captain was abruptly on the passenger side like a too-close mailbox; there was a glancing blow. Emma yelped to see him roll off her door. Aloysius skidded several yards before his tires anchored. Nothing was seen through the fogging rear glass. “Are you alright?” he asked.
The driver threw open the door and pushed against the deluge. A squint turned up only the impaled remains of the bonfire effigy sideswiped on a wooden pole. He ducked into the car to assuage her fear. “It was only the effigy!”
Emma was coherent. “Letís go, Aloysius.”
Without argument, he sped down the byway. The squall matched the coarseness of the gravel, but soon relief came with the lavender mist of asphalt pavement. The passenger remained quiet in the backseat, having shrunk under his cardigan to become another shadow of a hurried nightfall. Her voice was low in the din. “The lily is gone.”
Aloysius kept his eyes on the tremulous white line ahead, but confirmed her observation with a glance at the dripping dashboard.
Chapter Seventeen/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.