After Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front and Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O
“We both know you’re cynical,” my son Danny says. We’re in my studio, tenth floor, big corner of what used to be a factory warehouse. I’m painting his portrait. C-SPAN on my beat old TV with sound down to zero. I need to get my head out of my hand when I paint, nothing’s better than our elected representatives making faces at the future that’s swallowing them. No need to listen, their minds are made up. So’s mine.
“Why start politics the minute I get you settled?” I say. “You know I’ll say Bush is a war criminal. Let me paint if you want to be painted.”
Shadows of taller buildings lay along the floor. They’ll swing through the space as the afternoon goes on like black beams from slow searchlights. Moving the client with the sun is part of my strategy. Scrubbed grubby walls, phone numbers written beside the metal plate that used to be a wall phone before I got my cell. Paintings lined up along the floor turned back to front. I keep my failures to myself.
“Calm down,” he says wearily. He drops his cigarette on the floor, wiping his foot over, thinking what to say next. He says, “Not making a mess, am I?”
“You’re rich and twenty-six, does that mean – You’re checking your watch already?”
“We agree. See?” He holds out his wrist. “It shows month, day and year. I’m twenty-six.”
“Don’t break the pose,” I say. I quick-sketch a fat gold watch with spiky diamonds. Cramped dissatisfied Senate face on TV, dyed his sparse hair rusted-burnt umber to match his tie.
“You told me break the pose whenever I want,” he says, relieved to be arguing.
“When I thought you were smart,” I say, moving to get diamond glitz. “How much did that thing cost?”
Danny’s joking about his cigarette making a mess. There’s paint on the floor, my pants, my shoes. My clean new teeshirt says A VILLAGE IN TEXAS HAS LOST ITS IDIOT to bother Danny, the kind of smart young arrogant NeoCon who calls himself Libertarian. He says the portrait’s a present for his mother. I suspect it’s an ugly joke, the kind he likes. His mother doesn’t want my paintings any more than she wants me. I like an ugly joke myself, though not on his mother, a good friend. But portraits are a chance to listen. Set clients in a pose, close to but more uncomfortable than the way they sit themselves, fuss with brushes, lay out the palette, look up, say, “It’s wrong somehow, wriggle around.” Whatever they do, say, “Much better. Move any time you want. This isn’t a photograph. I need to see you changing.” Now they can’t stop telling you secrets, and neither can their bodies.
Danny’s in my favorite chair, blue, overstuffed, velvety texture. Faint green sprigs covering it are hard to see, perfect background, a design that surrenders rather than insists. He slumps back, arms dangling over the arms, uncharacteristically self-important, a look I will change.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” He lights a new cigarette, holds it ostentatiously over one shoulder to save me from second hand cancer. Now he looks like a fencer eager to be attacked.
“It wreathes you nicely,” I say. Like everybody in their fifties I’m an ex-smoker. “Ida likes those dreary da Vinci sfumato virgins.”
He takes a drag. “Da Vinci virgins are dreary?” I’m painting diamonds.
“No, just da Vinci, poor guy. Read a life. Any decisions on your life? Don’t give me the list of multi-ethnic lawyer names from the firm you joined, I don’t know one pirate gang from another. I mean real life – the other stuff, what you do for free.”
“I do law for fun.”
“Funny, I thought I said free, not fun.”
“You did say free, I said fun. You get paid for painting.” He taps ashes on the floor. This is boring, predictable and getting no closer to whatever he wants to tell me.
“My successful already couple hundred thousandaire son working on his first million, rubs it in I’m a broken down half failure of an artist. You know the shame I feel shopping for paints with a welfare smart-card? I might have to grind my own colors from birch bark and beet tops like Picasso.”
He smiles. “Can I take off this fucking hat?” It’s a blazing red baseball cap with a white P on the front, he’s a Phillies fan. It will ruin the painting.
“No. You walk in wearing it to bother me, it’s goes on canvas. It’ll ruin the painting and I need more ruined paintings. They sell, clients think it’s post-modern. This is your portrait but my art, never forget that. Take it off, I fake it in, and don’t fake caps good, I’d have to turn it sideways.” He throws up his hands, resigned nobody-can-do-anything-with-you pose I see a lot of. Sunshine slides across his diamonds. Great glint! He turns the hat sideways.
“Is this going to take long?” he says. “I’m enlisting for Iraq.”
I step back from the painting. “That’s crazy,” I say without thinking, and can’t think of anything to say so step back to the painting saying anything to stop him. Not that anything I say could. My argument is politics. He got his obscenely overpaid job right out of law school and thinks it proves he knows everything, proving he knows nothing. The war is a joke, Bush is a joke, we’re like a country that stepped in dog shit and can’t find anything to wipe it off with except the money in our wallets and it’s everything we own in billion dollar bills. The war’s lost, the media’s too scared of Rumsfeld to say so, Cheney’s pals treat Iraq like an ATM that keeps paying off when the account’s overdrawn, the army’s degenerating into brutal gangs of torturers and murderers, Republicans lie when they lie, Democrats lie when they say they believe them.
“You want to serve your country? I lived through the second half of the twentieth century, Vietnam, Granada, Marines in Lebanon, Black Hawk Down in Africa, Clinton bombing Serbia, the Father-Son Holy Bush Wars in Iraq. I served by marching against them. Four or five arrests, two semi-serious tear gassings, one cop’s nightstick at the ’68 Democratic Convention gave me a purple shoulder. Otherwise, I hated the liars, I laughed at the lies. I survived unmarked.”
His argument is, “You don’t have politics, you’re like New Yorkers who hate baseball so much they root against the Yankees. Only the game you hate is history. You boo and cheer the six o’clock news and march for peace and think you made a difference? The players on the field can’t hear you, Wally my dad, when you watch on TV. Nothing you did mattered.” Botoxed senator with a full head of wavy white senatorial hair heaves his frozen face at a frown. “You’re marked by being an unmarked man.”
“Great twisted law school logic,” I say. “You still know nothing about life.”
“You’re right,” he says. “The job I always thought I always wanted turned out to be a money tunnel with calm happy death at the end. Iraq’s a lie? It’s the only war I’ll get before I wind up like everybody else, bragging about everything they were luckily scared enough to miss, saying, ‘Better sad than sorry.’ You never lived that way.”
“You mean how I treated Ida,” I say. I deserted his mother ten months after he was born, walked off one morning with a big bad-tempered woman I wanted to paint, and walked away from her for the next one and the next, never married again. “Is this portrait thing an excuse to have a heart to heart with Dad? Because I’ll put away the paints. Otherwise sit up and stop looking like a snotnose pre-schooler. Ida survived. You won’t.” He slouches further down, a defiant ten year old at his first expensive restaurant, what I wanted. He’s a great subject, expressions chase each other across his face, none of them mean anything.
“Ida says she understands your need to flee. That’s why I want you to tell her about Iraq,” he says. “Tell her like you did when you ran off with Aunt whatshername who wasn’t my aunt, the blonde with big gazongas.”
“Aunt Gazongas was a different blonde. Are we father son best pals doing women jokes to bond?”
“Ida says you’re such an oldfashioned guy-guy women forgive you everything.” He reaches for the tweed jacket he wore coming in, and threw in a ball on the floor. He finds a blue pack of Ducados and chrome Zippo in the inside pocket, bends to light up, lifts his head with the cigarette in his mouth for the first puff. Like a goldfish rising to food. I get it quick on the sketchbook I always keep beside me. “Temporarily forgive,” he says sfumatoing the air. It stinks. Ducados, Spain’s cheapest and foulest cigarette, must be some new hipster fad. Only an up-to-the-minute dandy like Danny could stand them.
“Don’t drop that jacket, throw it on the chair. Not the arm, don’t you have any color sense?” I pull his head forward, droop it carefully careless along the back. Thick nubby tweed itching to be painted. “If future millionaires would take one course in basic visual composition while they’re cramming pre-tax-avoidance crap, I’d give them a fifty percent discount. What’d the coat cost, I’m poor enough to be fascinated with prices. Seriously, a thousand dollars? Are you shaving with one of those razors that leaves inch-long stubble because you know how hard it is to paint?”
“Yup. Three thousand.”
“Good, I like painting what’s hard to paint. Ida says she understands me? You don’t understand her. She hates me because she’s happy. After me she got handsome Rob the CEO, powerful guests at dinner, vacation trips to Europe, Asia and darkest Africa on safari, not forgetting a stepfather role model for her son the lawyer. Giving up art got her every stupid luxury America has to offer. My failure is proof it was worth it.”
“Tell her that stuff too, you did lots of times. I heard you at their parties.”
“Upstairs supposed to be asleep, spying on Mom and both your Dads. Maybe I knew you were there and was talking to you. I don’t remember any of anything much before I stopped drinking. Get drunk and tell her. Shift your shoulder into the shadow till it cuts you completely off from the coat. Show less brutal grace, can’t you? You look like a club bouncer.”
“Yeah,” he says, and shifts. All his brutal grace comes through. “Can I take off the hat, now you got the jacket to put in?”
“Leave that hat here so I can be sure you’ll wear it next time. I’d make you leave the coat, but it cost twice what I get for a portrait now. My last big price jump, what a year it was, Fall ’99, everybody rich with the money they were going to lose in the stock market. Is there a woman? Is that the reason?”
“Why watch without sound,” he says to the TV. “Politics for the deaf?”
“No need to listen.” I remote it to high. A voice in from a face like shaved Smoky the Bear talks deep truths in a melodious snuffle.
“Now, without delay, America must,” says the senator, letting the palm of his hand fall gravely on the podium.
“Off,” Danny says. I mute it.
“Are we done for today?” He gets up, puts his cigarette out on the floor, lights another. “There’s always a woman,” he says. He means don’t be stupid. The silent senator waves in reproach, disbelief and misery a sad goodbye.
“So the reason we’re having lunch is,” I put my mineral water down firmly and solemnly on the table. “I need a loan. Otherwise you have to pick up the check.”
“Be serious,” says Ida, who always picks up the check. My first wife, eighteen when we got married, ten years younger than me. Still has her blank, pretty, eager unknowing look – tabla rasa, color me who you want. An unearned look, some trick of genetics, unearned and undeserved. My paperback of James’s Wings of the Dove and my paperback Anna Karenina, different publisher, both have Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot on the cover. Weird to think of Anna and Kate Croy each looking like a sleek painter of bourgeois secular Madonnas, but that’s how I think of Ida. She fiddles with the big opal I gave her for the first anniversary of our first happy year together – that ended two months after we got married. I mention Iraq vaguely.
“You never were good at breaking news gently. He told me he’s going. He said you’re painting him nude so I’d remember him with all of his arms and all of his legs, hurroo hurroo. He’s your son.”
“I told him the war is finished, Bush is finished, you see him on TV? We’ve never had a President this buff. All he does is run on his treadmill, ride his stationary bike, climb the stair machine, all cardio, all fitness, exercising with his head cut off.”
“I hoped you’d talk politics at Daniel. What did he do, leap from his chair, shout, ‘You’re right!’ and join the black bandana kids?” She pours herself another glass from the bottle in the ice-bucket, deliberately dripping water across the table. A horrified waiter is at her side, replacing the soaked towel with a dry one, retreating in confusion when Ida, brushing her off, deliberately sticks the new towel in the bucket.
“This place has gone downhill,” she says.
“You mind me asking you to not pick fights with waiters and talk about our son instead?”
She pats my cheek the way she knows I hate. She eats. She says, between dainty bites, “He’s afraid you’ll worry and it will interfere with your art. He made me promise not to tell you that. He’s surprisingly protective of you. The painting I wasn’t supposed to let you know I know about is for his office. Make it ugly, edgy, satiric, – you know what he wants far better than I. He needs partners to come in and say, ‘Where’d you get that horror?’ Then he can say, ‘It’s my father’s. He caught something of myself and the entire legal profession, don’t you think?’ He has this inherited need to be outrageous.”
“If he joins he won’t have an office.”
“They’re saving his office. You don’t let a lawyer like Daniel go simply because he volunteers for legal duties in Iraq. It’s a twelve-month program. He’ll prosecute rapists and killers he says, up to and including the rank of sergeant. Officers are golden. He would have told you, but you two get in this irony thing. He loves it, you reading him Great Expectations is why he’s a lawyer. Remember Jaggers, who you called the only a little more than half-evil solicitor? But he can’t talk seriously to you. Talking seriously is my job. He says it’s why you left me.”
“A lot he knows.” We’re in Philadelphia’s most expensive French restaurant. Classic haute cuisine. Splendidly gilt chairs, flowered chintz wallpaper and on the ceiling a copy of Fragonard’s, The Swing, or Happy Accidents of the Oscillation. A babyface babypink wife spreadlegged on a swing kicks one leg so high the shoe flies off revealing all to her lover. “Souvenir of the days when no respectable woman would think of wearing panties. You told me that on our first date.”
“Showing off art history smut from a course I dropped to live with a regrettably real live artist. Regrettable fun, the best kind.” She drinks a little of her very good Riesling. “I like cheap wines in dear places.” The Riesling costs more our lunch. She has her own need to be outrageous. A way I like.
“How’s Rob?” I say. “What does Danny want, my blessing?”
“Rob’s great, we’re going to Bangladesh this year, apparently it’s not like you imagine, I saw in the Times travel section. Daniel wants you to not worry, and paint. The idea he’s in the army is ridiculous, he might not get a uniform. He’ll certainly never get it dirty.”
“Blood is dirt,” I think but don’t say.
“I always did know what you’re thinking,” Ida says. “Don’t hold it against him. He asked me to tell you he won’t let them blame war on the chumps on the ground.”
“He’ll be prosecuting them.”
“Or defending, it’s the luck of the draw. No matter what the draw, he says his chumps will walk.”
C-SPAN off in her honor, I can never tell how the rich will take it. Jennifer, a name she mourns, comically: “Every Tom, Dick and Harriet is named Jennifer.” Her dress’s neat curl over her knees echoes the fold of the hands in her lap, clasped to show massive matching diamond-crusted platinum engagement and wedding bands. You’ll never sell portraits if you can’t paint diamonds, and forget radical politics, you can’t paint diamonds without loving them. Her prim expensively dyed and trimmed bangs give a relaxed alert look to her pretty-as-a-premeditated-picture personality. Neat, benign and concerned, like portraits of Past Presidents in college hallways: “I am looking at you looking at the me I want you to see.” Always makes me want to stab them in the canvas heart.
“My name’s Wally,” I say. “Not short for Walter. Wally on my birth certificate.”
“You don’t run a magazine where twentysomething interns call you Jennifer with that lilt they keep for each other. I have to be Ice Queen or I get ‘Hey there, Jen Babe.’ It’s not tragic, but all jokes get tiring. You’re sure this angle’s right for me? Could I look?”
“You get one peek,” I say. “Make it a good one. Remember it’s unfinished.”
I turn the canvas to her. It’s blocked out in underpaint. Rough hump of blue for the chair, scabby-brown-rose for the shadowed wall behind. Burnt ochre splotch that doesn’t even approximate her marvelous hair. Russet glints in it, must cost a fortune to keep up.
“Why do I trust you, when that’s the first thing Ida warned me not to do? It looks like the Dow Jones average since January,” she says. “Roughly soaring, tending downward. This is a present for a friend. Do me without my warts.”
“Mmff,” I say.
“I never thought of you as an artist. I don’t mean your work for the magazine is ordinary, we get you when we need a touch.” She talks on, her pale green dress seems to be melting and fraying into the sprigs. It’ll paint great, later. I do diamonds.
“If it wasn’t for Ida, I’d never have got the idea. You’re coming to Dan’s going away party?” I nod. “You see them socially? It’s odd we never met.” Silent stiff staring at the wall, she seems to need to hold her breath to talk.
“You’re right, the pose stinks. Try again.” She inches an inch.
“Great,” I say. It’s lousier yet. “But don’t hold it. This isn’t a photograph. I need to see you changing.” She inches another inch. This is an emergency. I throw a handful of cheap brushes on the floor, always impressive. “You’ll get used to this. These fucking shadows, I need them, but have to chase them around the studio. You don’t mind? I’ll move you – here!” I get behind the chair, nobody thinks it’s on rollers, and shove her halfway across the studio.
“I will not be pushed and positioned like an apple by Cezanne,” she says quietly, a voice full of power. Jennifer is the famous first woman editor of Philly Folks, Philadelphia’s equivalent of the New Yorker, New York, Village Voice and scabrous gossip rag rolled into one. She’s also my boss, part time. I’m not entirely unsuccessful, but make my living with odd jobs. Illustration, design, adjunct teaching. None of it pays much. Mostly it’s enough.
“No worry I’m Cezanne, or you’d turn out green,” I say. “Get settled if you want but this is perfect.”
She changes as much as she can back to her old pose. The pose doesn’t matter now that the will comes through. I admire Jennifer, the fearsome bitch. She scares me. You don’t get to be an editor, specially a woman editor in a boy’s game, by being Little Bo Peep. Underlings call her Jennifer, but she was born for the maiden name she kept through two husbands, Ms Wright. Silent, stiff, she won’t give me anything but what she wants. Either I ruin her pose or she ruins the painting.
“Do you mind if I smoke,” she says. It’s not a question, she opens the huge designer bag at her feet, and digs out a silver case with somebody else’s florid initials on it because it’s an antique. “I started again recently, please don’t put it in.”
“Hold the case though,” I say. “Or drop it in your lap. If whoever’s getting the painting gave you it, it’s an inside joke.” Finally, for an instant, she looks human and embarrassed.
“The case, leave it in I guess, is a present from – the person who’s getting my present,” she says. “Not my husband. To change the subject, you and I have worked together since I came to Folks, you were always good, always better than what we asked. Is it horrible for you doing commercial work?”
“I’m always interested in the kind of people who ask me that,” I have to put her in her place, so she’ll break out of it. “Commercial work pays the bills. I love it. It’s the opposite of art. You either take it seriously or fuck it up completely. When it’s done I get to fuck paintings up completely. What do you get to do?”
“I knew you guessed that. There’s nothing I want to get to do.” She turns sideways, showing a long Nordic-tracked thigh. Now she’s human, embarrassed and friendly. Her lover’s only seen her this way right after sex. He’ll tell her the portrait captures the real her. Maybe he’s right. Are you really you after sex with a new partner? Or is the rest of your life real? Acrid smell of burning turd fills the studio. She lazes into a slump, staring at the floor. “You smoke Ducados too? I recognize the butts.”
“My son. I quit years ago. I’m painting him, a present for his mother. He insists on paying. I’d feel guilty, but I never feel guilty, and it probably costs less than your cigarette case did. He’s going to Iraq.”
“I know. Ida was hoping you’d stop him someway. She says that’s why she insisted on keeping in touch with you, he needed a father’s hand from his real father.”
“Rob’s his real father. Ida needs me as a horrible example.”
“Is that the reason Dan’s going? Like father like son? A young man with all the advantages, and such a waste of a war to lose them in. I talk to Dan a little. Jay and I see the Steels frequently. He seems so certain of his life, and yet, I’m sure you see it, he wants something different. He’s got his dreams. My twentysomethings would say he’s an old soul.”
“He runs six miles every morning, competing with himself. Himself is who he dreams about. My bet is, he’s twenty-six, the old soul is a woman.”
“It’s easy to joke about young people’s dreams. I think of the silly things I wanted and wonder why I didn’t go after them.” She’s in a splayed sprawl, feeling with one hand under the chair. “You don’t have an ashtray? Painting is why Dan envies you, he says you have the one life he can understand. It couldn’t be only a woman, he’s too complicated. If he’s leaving her behind, it can’t be serious. Isn’t it more possible that being wrong is in itself an adventure for him. Is that what you thought leaving women?”
“I’m prying.” She sits up, leans forward, glossy lonely eyes, I sketch them fast on the side of the canvas. “Does he see a lot of women? He never brings any to parties.”
“Then it’s serious,” I say, painting thin lines under those shining eyes. “She’s married.” I paint age signs in, wait for clients to say, “Somehow I don’t like it,” and paint half out. They’re delighted. Men are hardest to delight, they need to be clear-eyed clear-skinned highschool heroes. Women want to look like they welcomed experience.
Nothing happens at Rob and Ida’s parties. Drinks, dinner, more drinks. Wine only. Husbands over sixty don’t drink hard liquor anymore, in public. Jennifer talks to me, watched by her husband Jay. After dinner she and Danny go out on the patio. Two Ducados smokers, ten times worse than one. A strong tarry smell of wild woodsy morel mushrooms freshly fertilized by passing deer wafts back in. Jay, I watch him from curiosity, times them with his watch. Like Danny’s, more diamonds. I memorize glint.
“You should let me stage all your paintings,” says Doré, who thinks her name is a good joke played on her by fate and earnest culture-climbing parents. She’s naked on the floor, one leg under her, other one raised at the knee to support a big sketch board. She copies an old painting of mine, Aunt Gazonga, the amazing nude, before she left for a respectable career in art evaluation. I’m painting me in paint-splotched clothes, crouched in a corner, sketching Doré. It’s Doré’s idea, from Picasso’s model and painter series. But not an old man reproducing what he can’t do anything about, this artist paints his young and his former model-mistress, creepily and warily triumphant. It started as a joke, then I got obsessed. She’s African-American, Chinese, Scottish mix. I can’t describe her skin, but I’m learning to paint it.
“Get your glasses in,” she says.
I paint with heavy black-rimmed reading glasses, and use my fingers as much as the brush, the frames are caked solid with runny oils. Doré, 25, is not as they say in Art Bios my companion, she’s my assistant. Meaning, we don’t live together. We talk so much about how happy we are not living together that both of us must want to. Even me, for years a lone ranger. Neither of us has said anything. It’s not a problem I look forward to. I paint her shoulder blade, radiant with hybrid vigor.
“What a body Gazongas had,” says Doré in despair. “Like Titian’s Danae. Your painting’s like a novel called Why I am a Self-Made Failure. An artist too poor to hire a model, too choosey to seduce students, and too pigheaded to care what the market is. Nobody buys nudes, especially yours, they’re so butt-naked.”
“I was never poor,” I say.
“Worse. You were a talented young man who married a rich wife to work on your art. It’s not that it’s boring that makes that life sad, it’s that it’s bored. How long did she last, eight months? I hope she left you.”
“Twenty months, counting the time before we got married. She discovered I was unfaithful and owed it to herself to leave. She left me broke, not poor.”
“Good for her. What was going on when you were painting Gazonga? Photo-Realism, Pop, Minimalism? You ignore everything but your own dumb way, and as a reward nobody wants your work except if they know a lot about art and art history, all that unsalable stuff. You’ll have your mini-vogue, though, dead or alive, when you’re eighty.”
I get the curve of her back right. No C-SPAN, I don’t need distraction with Doré.
“Something wrong with your pose,” I say. “Stretch.”
“Don’t try your art secrets on me,” she says. “But I need a break.” She stands and bends backwards till her palms touch the floor.
“Don’t move,” I grab the sketchbook. “You’re aiming it at me.”
“Think I don’t know that? Go fast, think croquis, this is hard.”
I get her drawn, she flips upright. I wish, not for the first time, I could draw her moving. She walks around the room turning paintings back to front. “Working class paintings of exploited darkskinned people painted not to sell.”
When I don’t have commissions, which is often, I pay kids on the street, janitors, neighbor Moms and their babies to sit. It’s something to paint, I need to paint.
“Too much Alice Neel, not enough Sargent. Is everybody you know African-American or third world including me, the occasional partner of your life? What’s this?” Dan and Jennifer, almost finished. “Wally. Wow.”
“Friends, they’ll pick them up later.”
“You sure they’ll be your friends after this? It looks like standard he-sits-she-sits twin family portraits. Same chair for each, he leans out at her portrait, she’s shifted backwards, legs spread, here I am. He smokes the cigarette, she has the case in her lap. He says, I’m young enough to do anything and anybody. But her eyes, what did you do to them, they say no, I’m the doer not the done, it’s me does you. Except – brilliant Wally – the cigarette case in her lap’s like a silver chastity belt. Another novel in paint, call it Ugly Love.”
“I have to tell you everything, be patient, and remember even the bad parts aren’t serious,” says Jennifer. She sits on the leather burnt umber couch in her corner office. Views out every window. Clouds fat and summery. Smoke stacks, few of them smoking anymore in Rust Belt Philly. No boats on the Delaware, the port’s dying too. “Sit beside me,” she says. “This is personal, not business. We’re doing it here because it’s alright for you to shout. Or cry, if you do.”
I sit beside her, watching. Amber choker, splotched with chunks of bug, neat Anchor Woman hair, red blouse to soften the chestnut tones in that soft touchable hair, simple brown cashmere skirt.
“Dan got you to paint him for me, not Ida, I don’t want it. It can’t hang in the house, there’s Jay. The painting of me was for Dan. One of his jokes. ‘We’ll hang them side by side when we’re married,’ he said. ‘The Unholy family. Madonna, child and Dad the devil, invisible except in the record of his skill.’ He gets like that when he drinks. Some wild streak in him. Thanks for being quiet through this, so far. I have a way to go. I’ll listen to anything afterward. As long as you want, my daybook is clear. Do you mind if I smoke.” It’s not a question. She opens the cigarette case in her lap, sighs, closes it again.
“Cigarettes later,” she says. “I’m not marrying him. It’s crazy. He’s crazy. He was very affected by your leaving Ida. He thinks she wasn’t much of a mother because she blames you. I don’t see how that could matter after she remarried.” She touches a hand to the back of her neat hair. “But Ida and I are different. I’m embarrassed to tell you what shouldn’t be embarrassing. Dan and I never slept together, never necked. Nothing. He wants to do it right, for my sake. Wally, this isn’t embarrassing though it shouldn’t be.” She hurriedly gets out a cigarette and lights it with the Zippo she had underneath. “He could have had me the first time we talked, outside one of Ida’s parties on that ugly patio full of cactus because nothing else can stand the sun.” She closes her eyes. “Don’t let me digress into landscaping, please God.” Opens them. “There’s something anti about him, anti-anti even. He doesn’t believe anything so has to try it all. You do understand he’d be a perfect fling for a woman who spends her life in a humdrum high-pressure office job? I may have a fling or two, when pressures,” she waves a hand, “press. Jay always suspects, it’s his way of understanding. Don’t let me digress into my marriage. Jay has his own resources. But Dan would tear my life apart. Fine with me, for a month or six. But he wouldn’t be Dan if he left it at that. So,” she inhales. “He’s safe, from me. Now you talk.”
“I don’t see the problem,” I say. “This is a lot of confession for no sins.”
“The problem is. Be calm, it’s not serious. He’s coming home. He’s wounded.”
“How could?” I squeeze my eyes shut. “What’s not serious mean?”
“In the shoulder, it shouldn’t have happened. His vest malfunctioned, or no, that’s too big and mechanical a word for a vest. Some defect, otherwise he’d be fine. The vest took most of the damage. He’s keeping it as a souvenir. He laughs about it now.”
“You talked to him.”
“He called me. A very sympathetic doctor called first. My number was the only one Dan would give them. Wa-a-a-a-ally.” Not for the first time, I think irrelevantly that my name makes a perfect wail of sorrow. “They thought he was dying!”
I’m on my feet, walking around the room. The beautiful haze the sun makes on smog in summer hangs over Philly. Like a Sisley without those floods he loved to paint. “He’s not dying?” I say, staring at black smudge from oil refineries, sole survivors of Philly’s Industrial Counter-Revolution.
“He’s perfect. The doctor took a lot of time explaining, overnighted me X-rays, they’re on the desk for you. The bullet, bullets, two he thinks, nicked an artery, he got immediate emergency help, medivacuated out, I’m not sure that’s the word. A week in Germany.”
“A week, and nobody told us? There’s regulations, they’d call his parents.”
“He was out of danger inside ten hours. They didn’t call me till then. I don’t know how he managed that or them not calling you, but he manages what he wants. He doesn’t want me to tell you now. He’ll deal with you and Ida himself he says. I’m breaking a solemn promise. Twice. You in the morning. Then Ida and more confessions. What a day, right? What a day of days.”
I hold up X-rays to look at black bones and cloudy organs. She stands beside me.
“How could he get shot in a courtroom?”
“He got tired defending and accusing them, he said. They were shut off in unknowable lives. He somehow got to drive a Humvee. He says one time, that’s not probable says the doctor, he’s protecting people who let him do it. The army’s furious at him. He’s all they have over there, Dan says, who knows anything about law – military, civilian or moral. They threatened to court martial him, but backed down when he said he’d defend himself. That’s almost certainly one of his jokes.” She laughs phlegmily. She gets several tissues from a box on her desk, hands a handful to me. We’re more snotty than teary. We blow noses together sociably, sad and relieved. I cry.
“Wa-a-a-a-ally,” she wails. “He’s coming home to marry me. He says if I won’t he’ll go back and do it again!”
I sit her down, I hold her tight. The bitch boss of Philly Folks weeps in my arms. “He’ll wreck my life and his – am I crazy? Can he boss me around? NO!” she shouts. “Damn it all, it’s not love. Not like Jay. But I do need to not be alone with him. He’ll make me do anything.”
She goes in her private bathroom and comes out, face washed clean of makeup. Looks younger, scared and determined. “This is weak of me, but please? Talk to Ida. I need to make myself presentable enough to walk through the office and go get drunk. The door in the corner’s my private elevator, nonstop to an exit on a side street. I can’t have us walk out together. You’re a mess too. Congratulations, after this everyone at the magazine will be convinced we’re lovers. Before you go.” She pulls her hair back into a bun. “The January issue, always a dead loss. Everybody got everything they didn’t want for Christmas and is sick of spending money. Do the cover. Check with Stu on the story, it’ll be one more idea whose time has yet to come – Plastic Surgery for Your Pet, Yes or No? You might as well get something for losing your reputation for integrity.”
We hug, like worried parents. I keep thinking Danny’s coming home, changed somehow, obviously the same pain in the ass. It feels funny realizing how much I love him.
Ida knew without me. “Daniel called me right after Jennifer. I knew about her before she did. I’m the one who suggested he propose. I said if she turned him down he’d know she wasn’t serious. Not a nice thing to do to Jennifer, who is a friend, but I couldn’t have Daniel wind up one of the dead bodies she tosses out of her life every half year or so.” Ida and I cry together too, me as usual admiring her good sense.
“It wasn’t hard to do. I’m not talking too much am I?” says Danny, who can’t stop talking. “I go to a line company lieutenant. ‘You want to go because you’re defending us?’ he says. ‘I want to go because I’m prosecuting you,’ I say. ‘I need to know why things get done. How is all they care about in court.’ Then I got shot, very minor, scared me half to death. I’m perfect.” Danny lifts a fork in the air, turns his arm around a few times, lunges at me across the table. “Touché!” We’re at his welcome home dinner. No sign he’s changed. That’s how much he’s changed.
“Now you know French you can take those fencing lessons,” I say.
“They’d come in handy,” he says, dropping the fork, chewing and swallowing. “Iraq is a war of the Knights of Old versus the Minute Men of 1776. Remember armor got so heavy knights couldn’t move if they fell off the horse? That’s our Bradleys, all armor up front, perfect for leading attacks against enemy troops. No armor on the side, you could shoot through it with a target pistol. I exaggerate, but easy to pierce. Humvees are worse. Useless for riding past un-uniformed illegal enemy combatants like the Minute Men who’d wind up in Guantanamo if they got captured today. Our troops weld steel plates to the sides of their vehicles, much safer, but top speed’s cut in half. A kid on a roof with a Kalashnikov gets three or four shots as you go by. Not good when the job is patrol streets using electronic detectors to identify hidden IEDs, explode the device, question witnesses, hand out chocolates and move on. Meanwhile occasionally getting sniped at. When we take fire, regulations require that the convoy stop, dismount, fire only if enemy fire continues, proceed to search out, identify, capture or kill the assailant or assailants and hand out chocolates. That’s what they did, and laughed about it the first couple times. Then a couple guys get killed, or SFU, seriously fucked up. I am talking too much. But somebody asked, didn’t they? How it happened?” He drinks, he scrunches in his chair. “I’m at the wheel of a Humvee, RRR=RRR, helmet down to my shoulders, vest up to my ears, gas pedal glued to the metal. A chicken, dog, kid, mother, goat, anything gets in the way, my orders from my comrades in arms squeezed down heavily armed behind me are – don’t swerve, don’t stop, don’t look, run it over. A noise is heard. Might be a shot, who can tell over the screaming engine. Our completely exposed scared shitless who wouldn’t be machine gunner fires a dozen rounds on the fly. Everybody joins in, shooting blind everywhere. Mostly they miss, panic doesn’t help your aim and they aren’t aiming. They get a dog or chicken. If they hit a mother or baby, I prosecute. Enlisted men only, officers, old joke, are innocent by act of Congress.”
Doré squeezes my hand. I shouldn’t have brought her, but wanted protection against Ida and Jen, and Jay, who must have a spy at Philly Folks and watches me as close as Danny. I’m surprised and not delighted to discover I call Jennifer Jen in my head now.
“You’re right to laugh,” Danny says pointing a fork at me. “See why soldiers home from the war don’t tell stories? The truth is, war isn’t hell. War is shit, that’s all. Unremitting.”
“You didn’t say how you got shot,” Doré says. Everybody looks at her. “Sorry if I’m supposed to be seen and not heard.”
“Why be sorry, nobody here including me has ever forgiven anybody anything,” Danny says. “Traditionally, lawyers tell stories about clients, never themselves. But since it’s you,” he raises his glass in a toast. “I’ll make an exception. I’m in the Humvee, metal plates everywhere. There’s a bong from an IED, like being tied to the clapper of a bell when it’s rung. Vibration goes up through your nose to the back of your skull. I stop, the sergeant and his translator go parlay with the neighbors. ‘Nothing serious,’ somebody behind me says, and I turn to say, ‘Ha fucking ha,’ and get hit, and rub my shoulder, it’s like getting punched, and stand up, dazed, rubbing blood in my eyes, panicked, so much blood I think my eyes are hit, and flies, there’re unbelievable flies everywhere, are all over my face, I can’t see, everybody’s shooting blind around me, it was probably a rooftop kid long gone, the copter’s there in seconds, good thing, and good thing the guys’re already pressure pointing my shoulder, I’m stitched in a minute, in the air screaming, ‘My eyes! My eyes!’ The medic’s a typical ignorant eighteen year old small town Midwest kid who thinks he’s seen everything, with this difference, he’s a medic in Iraq, he has seen everything, and says in his bored pissed teenage way, ‘It’s flies, we can’t brush them off we might scratch your retinas, grab handfuls and squeeze.’ So I can’t tell you what it looked like, no mirror happened to be handy, but it feels like crushing handfuls of little wild blueberries, or,” he looks at his plate. Ida’s dinners are superb in their simplicity. Tonight it’s rare racks of baby lamb, Yukon gold potatoes and fresh organic petit pois. Danny grabs up peas in both hands, holds them to his eyes and makes fists. Green goo runs out through his knuckles and thumb. Somebody gags.
“I’m laughing, this is the craziest feeling I ever had, flies in my eyes, crawling and dying and buzzing and.” He drinks again. “Good wine.” Somebody slams his fork down, it’s Jay.
“You’re right,” Danny says. “I left out the best part of any IED attack. The sergeant’s parlay took longer than usual. We got hit midway between a police barricade and an Iraqi army checkpoint. First one citizen comes up with his kids, then another. They say cops helped the army set the IED, they were afraid to warn us, they’re heartbroken, they love American soldiers, troops hand out chocolate and we get ready to roll on. Bang, I’m shot. It’s not certain they kept talking to give my sniper time to aim – but that’s the way to bet.”
“You don’t have any evidence,” says Jay, a major contributor to Republican candidates.
“I knew you’d get my point, Dad Jay. It could be lies. Did they set the IED and think we’d never suspect a squealer? Did they want us to attack the cops and army so they’d get left in peace? Did the kids just want chocolates? And I know you get my other point, which is – we can’t trust anybody, they hate us. And they’ve won the battle for our hearts and minds, we hate them back. Now Wally my Dad has to show us his thigh drawing.”
I keep a small sketchbook on my lap at dinners and draw unobtrusively. Everybody knows, but it’s bad manners to notice, like making fun of a stutterer. Bad manners, of course, run in the family. I tear out the page and pass it to Danny. Most of the book is unposed awkward croquis of Doré nude.
Danny shows the drawing to the table. A laughing soldier, fists at his eyes, flies leak through his fingers, or fall crushed, or fly. He says, “Put some color in, I’ll send it to Iraq, guys’ll love it.”
I dip the center of my napkin, not the hard edge, in my wine glass and get a pale blotty wash of red around clenched fingers. “Gimme your lipstick,” I say to Doré. She tells me it’s brown not red. I say why else would I want it, and use the prong of my fork to lift crumbs of dried blood color I smear with my thumb. Danny reaches across the table and grabs. “One minute to scan and e-mail this, and you go down in military art history. Then as payment I tell you a happy story.”
We sit around the table waiting for Danny, thinking here’s a kid less than half our age older than any of us. I understand, it makes me shudder, why he wanted his war. He comes back with the drawing, he forged my signature for me, and, he needs his joke, included my e-mail address so I’d get lots of helpful critiques. Which I do. They’re funny, and sad.
“Now a happy story,” Danny says. He smiles at me. “Rita saved from gang rape.” A general rustling of revulsion among the guests. He knows I’m enjoying this. “I really am talking too much. But no clinical details, I promise. I wouldn’t be telling this at all if it weren’t for this twenty year old Vosne-Romanée Rob my Dad opened specially for me,” he takes a good drink. “And if my Wally Dad,” he smiles at me like he means it, “wasn’t enjoying his son being family drunk after all those years of sober bored boring dinners since he quit. Rita is tech sergeant in a support company that wouldn’t see combat in a traditional war, and gets mortared two or three times a week in Iraq. It keeps them jumpy. She’s cooling off in the outdoor shower, and six of our heroic men in uniform, all races and ethnic groups represented, decide as a joke to lift the shower shed, think of an oldfashioned telephone booth made of sheet steel, right over her head. Ha ha, lots of laughs, Rita too, possibly. Then somebody grabs her, another somebody, another – I’m skipping this part because the details get ugly, rape is definitely attempted and nothing happens. Nothing, DNA tests are never wrong. Nothing happens because Ramirez, little guy, shithead, I talked to him, he knows he’s right when he’s right and can’t see anybody get wronged, so he charges at the six soldiers. Probably because they’re ashamed of themselves, they know Rita, that’s why they played their joke, or because Ramirez is such a pug, like a featherweight, skinny, hard, long-armed, he’d use his arms like flails, throwing his whole body behind them – they run. Rita faints. Ramirez revives her, helps get her clothes on, insists they go to the company commander otherwise it could happen again. The company commander knows what to do. Arrest the guys, make them give DNA samples, have Rita do a rape test swab for evidence. The guys are innocent of accomplished rape. But Rita shows sex. She says no, not for months. They say there must’ve been a seventh guy. No, she says, no, no, nobody. On the off-chance they test Ramirez. It’s him. He’s alone with a naked woman, she’s out, she’ll never know the difference, he hasn’t had any for weeks. It was probably over in a couple minutes. Now the military is doubly involved. Protecting female personnel from sexual assault is priority number one in today’s army. Ramirez faces twenty-five years. I’m legal officer, no vote in the verdict, but essentially judge’s power during the trial. Regulations require this not be an all male court. But they’re all soldiers. ‘Ramirez seems to have been entrapped by circumstances and his own heroism,’ the ranking officer says to me privately. ‘You know what Rita’s life would be like if they succeeded? Sex, sex, sex, forced or consensual, with the whole company, day after day. She’d have to take it or resign. Ramirez saved her military career. Do something.’ The ranking officer’s a woman.” Dramatic pause. Danny finishes his wine and looks for the bottle. Doré passes it to him.
“And?” she says.
“I’ll get to it,” Dan pours himself a full glass. “To the future,” he says, raising his glass. “Wally my Dad’s former traditional toast.”
“To the future,” I say, raising my glass. “If you don’t mind me toasting with water. It’s supposed to be bad luck.”
“There is no luck. There is no fate. We make our lives. Like Rita did. She’s bewildered more than angry. How could Ramirez do it? He was so nice helping her get dressed. Now she hates him. But won’t press charges. He can’t get twenty-five years for saving her, no matter what he did after. She hates him is enough. But it’s the military pressing charges. Regulations say Rita – for her own protection against intimidation after the crime – cannot drop charges. She cries. I say, you’d have to say it was consensual. She calls me lots of names and says, ‘If that’s the only way. Shit, you men.” Uncomfortable rustling at the table. “I tell Ramirez, this is the funny part, we got a consensual defense. He won’t do it. He’s guilty, he never did anything like this in his life, he’s a religious man, he’ll take his punishment. Twenty-five years, I say. Nothing can shake him. I go back to Rita, who is, this is the sentimental part, touched to the heart. Her words exactly. Touched – to the heart. ‘Ask him if he’ll marry me. Won’t that get him off?’ she says. I say, sure, but marrying somebody you don’t love? She says, ‘I married two guys I loved, it was horrible. No sex though, specially with him. Tell him this is to get him out of jail. He’s a brave and wonderful man. If he wants to live with me I’ll make him happy. No sex. Imagine our kids asking, “Mommy, how’d you meet daddy?” And me, “Oh it was so romantic, I’m bloody and bruised all over my face, spread-eagle naked on the ground, how could he resist? So gentle I never felt a thing.”’ Ramirez thinks no sex is a just punishment for his crime, though maybe they’ll come to love each other. He proposes in court in hand manacles, Rita accepts with a kiss. Their first. Case closed.”
Through all that, quietly, deliberately refusing to notice Jay noticing us, Jen’s mumbling helplessly to get her out of marrying Danny.
“Tell him you slept with me long ago,” I mutter. “Make it before he was born. Say you don’t want to think of me while you’re in his arms. He won’t tell anybody, and he’ll leave you alone. Trust me.”
“Nonsense. Think if Jay hears that. Besides, it’s crazy. You’d lose a son.”
“For a while. He’s twenty-six. In five years he’ll be married with a two year old and another kid coming.”
Jen sobs once, loudly. She lowers her head almost to her plate to say, “You mean he’ll forget me no matter what.”
“You’re right to cry,” says Danny. “There’s sadness to come. Militarily, case dismissed means rape never happened, and there’s a press release about Rita’s rescue. It’s too tawdry to be cute, but makes it to their hometown papers. Turns out, they’re both already married. Will we have to try a double bigamy case?” He drinks again. It’s like I’m watching myself, thirty years ago, telling a story I want to make everybody hate.
“Here’s the happy ending part. Ramirez and Rita never got married, just moved in together. Rita thought the promise worked, enough was enough. They do though, the army’s quick and thorough about this, get divorced from their former partners, who do not want them back. Then Rita changes her mind. Ramirez kept texting her love letters, sometimes sitting right next to her. He’s a sweet guy. What’s one mistake? I don’t know if they got married but they’re naming their first child, who’s on the way, because it’s a girl, Daniella.”
I look around the table trying to see what everybody thinks of the story. Resentful and embarrassed at their own revolted urge to giggle is my guess, but I could be wrong.
Doré says, “That’s crazy. And beautiful.”
“Now I need a smoke,” says Danny. “Anybody else? I hate to sin alone.”
“I’m trying to quit,” says Jen.
Without a look of surprise, a pause, a smile or a frown, Danny says, “Then I’ll need this for company,” and picks up a full bottle of wine.
“I smoke,” says Doré. “But was afraid to bring mine.”
“Bring a glass,” says Danny, and they walk out the French doors to the cactus patio. Thirty-five minutes of Ducados stink. Jen times them. I admit I do too.
“See what’s happening,” Jen says. “I can’t, with Jay sitting here. Please.”
I pick up a bottle as if to fill her glass, but as an afterthought say, “We have an early day tomorrow, I’ll see if Doré.” I walk outside to lean against the faux marble balustrade and say loudly, “Don’t see them.” They’re standing next to me arguing. Doré’s saying there is fate, it’s the same as luck, look at her silly name. He says, “Fate is luck or vice versa, who cares? Don’t believe in them is what I say. Live like you make your own. Otherwise you lose the fun.” I put the bottle on the balustrade. I call back over my shoulder, “They must’ve taken my car. Doré has the keys.” I put my keys next to the bottle. Danny blows me a kiss. Doré flips a finger. “I’ll need a ride, Jay, when you and Jen are ready.” I say walking back inside, reminding myself I love Danny not Doré, no matter how necessary I let her get. So this is the happy ending part. Jen thinks I saved her marriage. Ida thinks I saved Danny from Jen. Jay and Rob think they had an object lesson in not fooling with twentysomethings no matter how tempting. Doré and Danny are the only possible problem.
“You are a bastard with women, everybody warned me. “You knew I went out there with him to make you jealous because you and I had to go forward or stop. That wine bottle was your answer with car keys as a kicker. Like – ‘Yes, children, live your young lives, I won’t interfere with your happiness. There was never anything between Doré and me.’”
“Unconsciously maybe,” I say, and don’t say, “My unconscious has always been right.”
“Dan believes, and it’s in your interest to back me up, you and I never went to bed, you took me to dinner as a reward for being studio assistant because I’m a committed radical anxious to see bourgeoisie having their corrupt fun. He’s a boy.”
“Two years older than you,” I say.
“Two decades behind in maturity. All he knows how to do is make law and fuck. He thinks he’s in love with me, so as a favor to you I said if he plays war games again I’ll leave him, and he swore not to. He won’t. He’s such a boy you can tell whenever he’s lying. Meantime, I’m doing the son after the father, weird for me, and not something to tell the grandchildren. When he gets back we’ll break up. I’m doing this on the phone because I didn’t want to get emotional and all I got was pissed. You meant well. You always do mean well. You’re thoughtful. You’re real sweet for being such a bastard.”
“Um,” I say.
“I cleared out my stuff,” she says. “It wasn’t much, we never got past three overnights a week. Have a nice rest of your life. See, bastard? You got me crying.”
“I was afraid, even though there wasn’t any romance with you two.” Danny pauses a second, it’s the shade of a ghost of a question. Last sitting. He managed to get the hat on different, the painting’s a mess. A senator turns from the whiteboard chart behind him, closes one eye, claps his hands as if in prayer, and nods. “Doré and I would look like some revenge or Oedipal thing. I fucked up my baseball hat to look stupid enough to say this, and still can’t.”
“Turn it sidewise,” I say.
He turns it backwards. He is my son. “I do love you, Dad Wally.”
“I love you too,” I say. “You should lend me your hat, if we’re both being stupid.”
“I have three months medical leave, we’re going to Paris. Away from family stuff. Ida says she knows for a fact there was nothing between you and Doré, but we feel funny, you know? Doré says, don’t plan, we’re young, live as if in five years we’ll be married to somebody else each with a two year old kid and another one on the way. She says that’s what you tell the ones you break up with. Which is wise, and makes them laugh, and doesn’t help.”
“I do the best I can,” I say. C-SPAN pans the empty seats of the empty senate. Danny’s face is wrong.
“Doré made me promise no more combat driving. I didn’t tell her the only advice you ever gave me about relationships, ‘Never do everything you promise.’”
“You’re going back,” I say. Next senator, overdyed black hair, tan, fit, fat and massaged – prime steer in a suit.
“Probably not,” he says. He pulls his hat around so the peak’s in front. “ Possibly not. I’ll lie till I decide to Doré and Ida and Jen. Women worry.”
I hate the hat. It won’t paint. My consciousness is unundistracted by the prime steer, who listlessly fingerpoints. I step back to distract me by predicting my life: I’ll lose Danny to his war, five years at least to go, now everybody’s against it but politicians. Danny’s too smart not to find out about Doré and me, so war or no war, whether they’re married or not, I lose him forever. I change the tilt of the peak. Or he never finds out, he’s SFU. Made more of a mess, so, mess it up worst. Or he’s dead. Red, not red enough, green some shadow in. Doré, it took me a week to realize why I won’t finish her and Gazonga. She’s one more woman I didn’t know I loved, and there she goes forever. Got it, what a hat! Now, “Lift your chin,” I say so he’ll drop it. Probably my last real affair, women young enough to fall in love with me lose patience anymore. It’s not the chin. I’ll go on being one more man dumped out of one more woman’s life, painting portraits that capture the real her – after sex, before the other her I’ll never see. The prime steer drinks triumphantly water.
“Women worry? Men worry,” I say. It’s not the chin that’s wrong.
“Never you. Never me.” He throws the hat across the studio. “You taught me that, remember? You said,”
Make him close his fucking mouth. No, open it! “I hate to get my truths preached back at me. They sound like horseshit.”
“You said, we all survive.” It’s the lip. Swollen. Get a thumb on it, more red, more – what? “Till we don’t.”
Of course, bruise purple, she bites in bed.