The chastened painter retreated to his studio after putting Ericaís garments on the bed. In groveling to pick up his hastily shed clothes off the floor, he sensed a ghostly figure mocking his action. Looking up, he spied his pale body in the rain-splattered panes of the skylight. The occasion of seeing it provided a rare moment of objectivity.
His blind manís bluff in disrobing in front of his model was admittedly an act of desperation, since the mechanics of any initial intimacy with a woman lay outside his realm of applied logic. Getting Erica out of her clothes required underhandedness, yet short of being blunt, he had no idea how or when his clothes should be removed. His few occasions of being nude with a woman came about by degrees so subtle he could only categorize the transaction in hindsight as being mind-bogglingly complex. And in arriving at an undressed state, this simply presented another set of nonverbal negotiations, where insecurity more than true inhibition gave rise to the perception his quiet lover indulged him. Or worse, by failing to give him explicit permission, she denied him full access to his pleasure.
Still, it was to his advantage when women were turned away in his dealings with them, for whether contemplating them aesthetically as pillars of alabaster, or as gaze-less objects for self-gratification, what he most wanted from intimacy was something impersonal, where he (they) stepped out of character and narrative.
This, however, was academic. Since nothing happened, Aloysius was left to walk around with nothing but his hopeless act to consider. He could not understand the rude context in which he found himself. What occurred between the young idealistic man he once was and the older, less dignified man he became was lost to all memory. There was no middle to recall.
His long-neglected canvases offered few clues. They aspired to be a trail of crumbs back to his youth, but the artist could neither remember any contemporaneous biographical details that might inform his works, nor assign them a relative chronology. Nothing in their layers of oil sediment tied him intimately to what he created.
This being duly noted, the world beyond his easel—the world of places, events, and people—never professed much use for him, so, like a wounded lover, he shut himself off from it and claimed martyrdom in forsaking something of which he never once took possession.
In his preoccupation, Aloysius forgot to listen for steps on the stairs, so ventured down after what seemed a reasonable time. Erica, to his surprise, sat on the edge of his candlelit bed; she had found a bed sheet to huddle under. Her clothes were arrayed around her on the mattress where he left them. The look she gave him was no longer one of scorn, but of hard study.
“Is the power really out? Or are all these vanilla candles simply to get me in the mood?”
“The power is out,” he answered dispiritedly, “although the softer light is kinder to my body.”
“And maybe kinder to my cellulite, too, you were thinking.”
His eyes skated over an uncovered thigh, as if thin ice. “It has nothing to do with that.”
“Do you find me pretty?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I said you were.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He could not deny his physiology in that moment, although there was a degree of acting when he expressed opinions about his feelings. It was as if in voicing them, he made whatever they really were disingenuous. His mind was so hyper-logical in parsing utterances before and after they left his mouth, he could little differentiate between lying and telling the truth when he replied, “I think you’re pretty.”
Her dissection continued. “Why is the power out?”
“I didn’t pay the bill.”
“Are you as poor as all that?”
Aloysius’ gaze dropped to her scuffed toenail polish.
“Do you have a wife?” she probed.
A cutting glance was thrown at the open closet door. “Are you a cross-dresser, then? In addition to being a dirty old man?”
He knew she referred to a wedding dress hanging conspicuously among his clothes. “That belonged to my girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend?” The barista was openly skeptical. “Did she leave you standing at the altar?”
“She was killed in a crash.”
“A car crash?”
“The last message on that answering machine is from her, if you don’t believe me.”
Erica, without hesitation, pushed the play button.
He reminded her. “There’s no power.”
She smirked. “Very convenient, Mr. Virgin Cross-dresser.”
His conversation, where not serving an end, was either circumspect or designed to dissuade conversation altogether. Seeing nothing productive to be gained by this discussion, he backed up to the door. “Your money’s on the same table.”
A bulky envelope sat next to the answering machine. Erica, releasing the ends of the sheet, leaned over to look under the flap. The money was more than the stated fee for her modeling. “That’s rich,” she quipped. “You assumed you would wind up here at the checkout with a basket full of groceries at evening’s end.”
The peek of skin prodded him. “You can have more.”
She grinned darkly. “More for what?”
The man was left to twist on his words.
Clutching the loose ends of the sheet, Erica gave him another once-over. “Why aren’t you married, anyway? Why aren’t you teaching at the college and chasing tail over there?”
“I meant to marry.”
“How old are you?”
Erica did a double take. “I would have guessed early thirties, before you took off your clothes.”
Aloysius, anxious, stared in the direction of the attic stairway.
She sat up erect on the bed, putting something together in her head. “Why me, anyway?” Why did you choose me for this honor?” She bore in with tweezers. “Is it because I’m some corn-fed local girl? Someone who would be grateful for what she gets?”
He was put-off by her crass portrayal of his motives.
She summed up. “Easy pickings, huh?”
“Why are you here?” he asked sharply. “Why are you soliciting work as an artist’s model when we’ve never once discussed art? Never once even had a conversation?”
“In a town like this, you make your money where you can.”
Aloysius spoke bluntly. “In a town like this, you can smell shared desperation like pheromones. That’s why you’re here.”
“Me as desperate as you?” She laughed. “What is this? Break-me-down psychology? This is your best argument for why we should hop into the sack and bone?”
He scrambled in a different direction. “This isn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out, you know.”
“Oh, I see!” she gasped. “I’m your consolation prize? Or is this sad story just to get a pity fuck?”
Aloysius endeavored to explain himself civilly. “All I’m saying is that life ends up taking you to places you never thought you’d go. You learn to see with different eyes.”
“What you mean is: When you’re on a farm, the sow in the barnyard starts looking good after a while.”
He deflected. “You’re not fat. Just big-boned.”
Her chuckle was caustic. “I see your lips moving, but I know which part of your body is throwing the voice.”
He shared in her sharp tone. “See it anyway you like.”
A step placed him outside the doorway.
Her accusation caught him mid-stride.“I knew all about you, even before reading your fairy story. You’ve been coming to the coffeehouse every day for as long as anyone can remember. You always drink the same thing and sit at the same table. You never talk to anyone—just write, draw, and stare at women. The other baristas think you’re mysterious, but I’ve always thought you were pathetic. Now I know you’re pathetic.”
“You read my journal when I left it at the coffeehouse?”
“You left it on purpose.”
“I go to the coffeehouse everyday. It was an honest mistake.”
“It was no mistake.”
Tiring of her harangue, he mumbled, “Don’t forget your money.”
Erica stood up dramatically, less mindful of her concealed flesh. An uncovered breast jiggled and poked the air like a scolding finger. “Your whole damn loser life is made up because you’ve never had the balls to ask a waitress out on a date!”
What had been near confection moments earlier was now purulent. Aloysius turned away, confident in his escape.
“You’re just another coffeehouse nutcase with delusions of grandeur—too good for the world!” she exclaimed.
Having reached the attic, the painter looked down to see the uncovered girl abruptly standing at the foot of the steps. Her tone was less strident. “I won’t say anything about this if you don’t.”
He paused a second longer to consider the strangeness in seeing a nude woman standing in the middle of his drafty hallway, but passed into his studio without a word.
Chapter Thirty, Section Three/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.