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Painters


ISSUE:  Autumn 1994

She came in late on a busy Friday evening. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to her if she hadn’t been blowing Gauloise smoke at me through sidelong, never-catch-me-looking-at-you kind of glances. I was pouring her Beam and Bud depth charges alternated with beer mugs full of soda water and lime. She’d been talking with another woman at the bar who was as short and pale as she was tall and weathered, but it looked like one of those conversations that unattached people have in bars when they’re looking for someone else to talk with.

My back was to her, bent over the dishwasher. She leaned way over the bar and spoke.

“Innkeeper, what does a girl have to do around here to get a drink?”

“Just like they told you back in kindergarten, use the magic word. . . .”

She smiled at me with a gold-toothed grin and sat back on her stool with her hands clasped behind her head. Her hair was yellow going early gray, flecked with little spots of blue paint in different sizes and shapes. It fell to her very wide shoulders like hand-woven rope.

“Plcocze,” she said in an exaggerated imitation of a little girl’s voice, “won’t you get me another “charge”?”

“It’s last call. . . .”

“Then make it a double, cutie,” she said, grinning at me with that gleaming-toothed smile, a little fuller and friendlier this time.

Her pale friend was already gone.

I unclipped the bow tie and unbuttoned my collar, smiling back at her as she pulled another filtered Gauloise out of her chamois shirt pocket and lit it.

“I’m Al,” she said, pouring her two shots into each of her two drafts.

“Tony,” I answered, extending my hand across the bar.

“Funny name,” she said, and shook my hand with a calloused grip. She downed her whisky-laced beers, laughed a little while putting a denim jacket on her back, and headed for the Free St. door. She stopped under the exit sign for a second look at the bar, shook her head at no one in particular, and walked out.

I was rearranging cases of long-neck Schlitz bottles when she came in early the next Tuesday night.

The happy hour crowd of lawyers and bankers had vanished into the dimming May dusk and the band guys were testing mikes and stringing cord all over the lounge floor.

She was wearing paint-stained coveralls, engineer boots, and her waist was cinched with a wide, fake-leather belt hung with tools and nozzles and little pieces of rubber tubing. The paint flecks in her hair were a metallic green this time, and there were more of them. She was scraping a bit of paint from the tip of her nose with her fingernail when she sat on a stool across from me.

“Get me a Seven-Up, please?”

“Will Sprite do?”

“Yeah, . . . you working tonight?”

“Every night but Wednesday and Sunday, rain or shine. . . .”

“Good,” she said with a serious look on her face.

She drank the soda quickly and handed me back the glass, looking around the room like she was surprised at how empty the place was. Taking a cigarette from the pouch on her tool belt, she put a match to it and walked out without another word, leaving a handful of change on the bar.

I ordered a sandwich from the kitchen and went back to straightening up the Schlitz bottles.

She returned that night a couple of hours before closing. With no empty stools available at the bar, she sat down alone at a table meant for three a few feet from where Wayne and I were taking care of a bunch of Norwegian officers from the Bay Prince ferry. She was wearing one of those French sailor shirts that cut in a vee just below the neck, accentuating the difference in her tanned face and the whiteness of her collar bone. Her face was clean, save a wide trace of lipstick that somehow made the long thinness of her nose more pronounced. Her dangling, seven-years-out-of-fashion-hippie earrings only heightened the serious muscularity of her shoulders.

Judy the waitress made repeated attempts to get her to order a drink, but Al kept waving her away until an empty stool appeared in front of my half of the bar. Al pulled away from the table and ambled over to my station.

She put her elbows on the freshly wiped bar and her pointed chin in her left hand. Her right hand undid the clip that held her braided hair in place and let the hair fall casually over her right ear. She smiled at me just enough to show the glistening gold caps at the center of her mouth.

“Manhattan, please. . . straight up, no cherry.”

“No depth charges tonight?”

“Those are overtime drinks, you know? This is a straight time drink. . . .”

“You paint, right?”

“New bank across the square. . . union job. . . “Local ISA All the Way”. . .y’hear me?”

“Good money,” I said off-handedly.

She cut me a look that felt like an argument, and I moved to the speed rack for the whisky and sweet vermouth. After the artful stir that is my trademark, I strained them carefully and set the drink in front of her. She took her long, thick fingers and wrapped them around the tulip crystal as if she was cradling a cup of early morning coffee.

She downed the Manhattan like she drank beer, quickly and without conversation. She took her pack of Gauloises out of a pocket in her skirt along with the money for the drink and laid them both on the bar.

The band had finished murdering “What A Fool Believes” and, after a smattering of polite applause, the lead singer promised to be back the following night to no one’s obvious joy.

“That guy shouldn’t even think about singin’ Doobie Brothers,” Al said, looking at me to respond.

“Hey, what do you want for a hundred bucks and free beers? They’ve all got day jobs too, you know?”

“You got a day job?”

“I paint. . . you know. . . I paint pictures. . . .”

“That ain’t no real job,” she said, rolling her gray eyes slightly upward.

I dropped it. It was last call and Wayne left the other side of the bar to roust the hard core drinkers and help Judy retrieve the glasses and mugs.

“HOTEL MOTEL TIME, FOLKS! You can sleep if you want, but you can’t sleep here. . . .” Wayne shouted.

The customers laughed and swore goodnaturedly and moved on out to wherever they go when we shut them off.

I was wiping down the bar when Al grabbed my wrist in mid-wipe.

“You know,” she said softly, “I bet you know someplace where a girl could get another drink. . . .”

“Yeah. . . I bet I do,” I said.

She smiled and slid the palm of her hand down the back of mine slowly. ***

I cashed up and we walked over to my Spring Street rent. My living room, my “studio” really, was in its usual state of disarray: drop cloths, easels, frames, half-finished paintings strewn between pieces of old pile carpet and bean-bag furniture with just enough room for two bodies to make it into the kitchen single-file.

The kitchen, not a whole lot neater, was part of a set of rooms added on by some intrepid previous owner. I liked the contrast between the Victorian studio and the mid-fifties back rooms, a sort of elaborate joke with a simple punchline.

I took a couple of clean jelly jars from the cabinet above the sink, reached up on the shelf for the dust-topped bottle of Wild Turkey, and poured two shots: free-pour, Wild West style.

“Umm. . . umm. . . Welch’s. . . my favorite!” she said, grinning broadly.

“You want some ice. . . a little water maybe?”

She grabbed my beard with both hands and pulled my face to hers, leaving the jelly jars of whisky to sit precariously on the edge of the sinkboard.

I put my right hand to the back of her neck and my left on her hip and we kissed each other while we fumbled blindly with buckles, buttons, hooks and zippers, hop-stepping our way into my bedroom like kids in a three-legged race, falling down at last on the frameless mattress on the floor: a jumble of half-worn clothes, muscle and skin.

We rested later, sitting up with pillows at our backs against the cool plaster of the wall, the sheets pulled up to just below the curve of Al’s breasts. Her feet were proportioned like her hands, larger than mine and cold to the touch as she put them between the calves of my legs. It was already three o’clock.

“Did you think this was gonna happen?” she asked.

“I thought something was gonna happen,” I said.

“So. . . we’re painters, right?”

“Yeah. . . painters.”

We both grinned and she pulled me to her, kissing my neck.

“Gotta go now. . . work in three hours. . . .”

She stood up, and I helped her put her clothes together. I walked her from my bedroom through the studio minefield to the front door and kissed her, feeling my nakedness against her denim skirt.

”. . .see you again, Al?”

“I’ll. . . be around. . . .”

She gave me a furtive peck on the cheek and walked out onto the sidewalk, moving east on Spring Street at a brisk pace.

I walked back to the kitchen sink and poured the still untouched liquid in the jelly jars back into the bottle. I went back to my bed, ready to sleep, but the fresh smell of lovemaking kept me awake.

I pulled on a semi-clean pair of sweatpants and an old golf-shirt and walked barefooted into my studio. I picked up a large sketchpad from my bookshelf and began to charcoal something I had seen only in a movie: the Empire State Building. . . .

It went on like this for a while: once or twice a week she would come in late and drink at the bar, then she would go home with me, leaving her pick-up truck in the parking lot by the new and not yet finished bank, walking along the street hunched over beside me, not talking.

We would make love until three or four in the morning, less awkwardly each time, a little more carefully each time. She would leave then, telling me to stay in bed—she knew the way out. I would ask her each time to stay the night, knowing full well the answer would be no.

She told me she lived across the bridge in South Portland, with “other people.” She didn’t say who, and I didn’t ask.

As June began to bring the warm rains and long days, she would stop by my place on her lunch break and we would roll around my drop-cloth covered carpet, wrestling and making quick love, staining more than just her hair with the colors from my work and the sweat from our bodies.

She never saw me on the weekends, she never came by on my days off. In those days I was painting movie themes, fancy oil-based cartoons really, adding scenes and characters to movies everyone has seen: a pot-bellied Clark Gable-as-Rhett Butler carrying a Scarlett O’Hara-with-Rosalyn Carter’s face up the stairs at Tara; a pajama-clad James Cagney-with-Brezhnev’s face pounding a grapefruit into the smiling visage of a negligeed President Carter; Anwar Sadat-as-Marlon Brando-as-Stanley Kowalski looking triumphantly down at Yassir Arafat-as-Vivien Leigh-as-Blanche DuBois. I was working hard at getting the paintings beyond caricature, using subtle shadows and light to give the viewer the illusion that these figures really did play those screen roles. I wasn’t succeeding.

I began to move the Empire State sketch from charcoal to the easel, adding the bi-planes and King Kong as I drenched the scene with bright reds and yellows to contrast with the brown hairiness of the giant ape. I gave the figure Richard Nixon’s face, complete with jowls and five o’clock stubble, cruelly squashing a gnat-like plane with a huge paw.

I kept changing it. I put a tee-shirt with Vice President Agnew’s picture on the ape, then changed it to Nelson Rockefeller’s portrait, then again to Eisenhower. Each change made the painting weaker—more political and less artistic—with each brush-stroke.

I knocked off at six, shortly after painting out the last of Kong’s failed incarnations. There was a Marlene Dietrich retrospective playing at the public library and it was free, so I warmed up some leftovers, wolfed them down with a cup of coffee, and walked downtown.

They were showing von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, and after the resident film expert spent twenty minutes boring everyone with his introduction, the crackly green shades were pulled and the first of the reels began cranking through their loops and onto the tiny screen at the front of the room.

The star first appears as an entertainer in a night club, dressed in a gorilla suit, dancing to a tune called “Hot Voodoo.” She takes the head off of the suit at the end of the number and reveals herself as the incomparable Dietrich, stripping down to a shimmering costume. That’s when I started giggling like an uncontrollable kid in church.

A man with a beret and a walking stick tapped me on the shoulder and put a finger to his lips when I composed myself enough to turn around.

I quietly left, having gotten what I came for.

I began to go to the gym and work out with weights. Wayne and Judy began talking about me as though I wasn’t there.

“Tony likes ‘em big,” Wayne would say.

“Can you take her three out of four falls yet?” Judy would tease.

I resented it a little.

I liked it a little, too.

She’d had one more drink than she should have had, and I probably should have cut her off. I didn’t.

“Damn them. . . scabby-ass bastards. . . .”

“Who, Al?”

“The company!. . . we need that insurance. . . .”

She slammed her heavy palm on the bar and looked at me like she was surprised I was listening.

I looked back, equally surprised because I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.

She fired up a Gauloise and didn’t say anything more until we began the walk to my place.

”. . . they can’t have it back. . . they’re messin’ with the wrong people!” she said with conviction.

“Who can’t have what back, Al?”

“Nothing. . . nothing. . . ,” she said, averting her face from mine.

I put my arm around her waist to steady her slightly drunken steps. She put her left hand on mine and gently rubbed my knuckles.

I made a pot of coffee and fed her a salami sandwich to sober her up. She stared out my kitchen window, lost in angry thought, silently chewing her sandwich as the crumbs fell on her lap.

“Want to tell me what all this is about?”

“It ain’t none of your concern,” she said, slurring her words with a clumsy grace.

“Come on, Al, what the hell is going on?”

“Look here, Mr. Artist. . . while you diddle yourself with them paintings I’m climbing scaffolding and pulling lines and changing hoses and every other goddamn thing, you got that? I get my lungs full of paint, my hair full of paint, and come close to gettin’ killed at least once a week. I make pretty good money and I got insurance, and now them sons of bitches want us to give some of it back and we ain’t gonna. . . .”

She said it all in one burst, without a single slur, like she had been practicing her anger all day in her head. When she finished she looked away again, then turned back to face me with a silly, subject-changing grin.

“Show me what you been painting. . . maybe you’ll get famous and I can say I used to go to bed with you when you was poor. . . .”

She offered me a huge hand and I pulled her up from the chair. We walked to the front room and I showed her my series. She laughed and poked fun at the “Gone With The Wind,” told me she had never seen “Streetcar Named Desire,” said President Carter had never looked better while he waited for that grapefruit.

I pulled the final piece out of the corner and placed it on my free easel. I had taken a still from a book on Dietrich—the one with her grinning slyly, halfway out of the gorilla suit, the head piece under her arm. I had given the elegant Marlene Al’s face: a defiant look, a tiny scar on the end of her nose, the gold caps on her teeth, flowing wheat-colored hair with little medallions of paint. . . .

Is that what you think of me??. . . some goddamn ape?!. . . .”

She slapped me so hard my jaw stiffened. I stood there feeling stupid, so very, very stupid.

She hadn’t seen the movie, she didn’t know what I was trying to say. She took another bite of the crumbling sandwich.

“How come you did that?” she asked.

I regained some of my dignity and told her it was a famous movie scene, just like the others. I showed her the photo I painted from, I talked about Dietrich, I said it was a compliment, a tribute.

“I don’t want no ‘tribute’,” she said.

She grabbed my jaw and I flinched.

“I’m not sorry,” she said, but she stroked by face, her rough hands fingering my whiskers, twirling the beard hairs gently.

She kissed me and looked at the painting, then stood beside it trying to imitate the pose, holding her nose up in the air like a knife.

“Is that German enough for ya?”

She fell down on the floor laughing, laughter that turned into a drunken cough, a cough that spit bread crumbs into my face while I reached down to pull her up from the floor.

Al pulled me back, and I fell on top of her as she rolled me over, pinning me to the floor like she was rough-housing with a brother or a child. She cupped my face in her hand and kissed me, my jaw hurting all the time like a pulled tooth. She got back up and pulled me upright, leading me again to the kitchen. She collapsed on the kitchen chair and took a last bite on the still unfinished sandwich.

She grinned at me with eyes set in a safe melancholy, an unwanted victory.

“Your mouth still hurt?”

“No,” I lied.

I took her hands as she finished her sandwich and got her to stand up. I pulled her to me but she wouldn’t yield, just stood there with a scrunched-up face that looked like it was either going to cry or laugh. It did neither.

“No. . . don’t Tony. . . gotta go home. . . .”

I moved my body closer to her and rubbed her gold teeth with my forefinger. She kissed it and then pushed my hand away.

“Let me go with you. . . .”

“That. . . wouldn’t be good. . . .”

She grabbed her cigarettes from the kitchen table and walked out.

On Saturday morning I was sitting on my porch steps drinking coffee. An old Pontiac pulled up in front of the house driven by a bearded man, a small girl and a smaller boy in the front seat beside him. The edges of the Pontiac were haunted with rust and a hole in the exhaust made it rattle and shudder like nails in an old coffee can.

The driver put the sedan in park and got out, the car’s engine still idling and the kids looking straight in front of them at a coloring book with that I’ll-be-good look that children get when they really have to.

He was compact and rugged looking, and he walked with just the trace of a limp. His face was hard and red.

“You Tony?”

“Yes?”

He came to his point.

“You gotta leave Alice alone. . . it just ain’t right. . . .”

His face softened involuntarily and the redness began to drain from his forehead.

“We got these kids,” he said. “We got these kids and there’s gonna be a strike. . . .”

He lowered his eyes a little, turned, and went back to the still rumbling Pontiac. He drove away without looking back at me again.

The kids didn’t look back, either.

She didn’t come back. She didn’t stop in. She didn’t see me again.

On a hot August day I sat at a window in George’s Delicatessen, watching the striking painters from a block away as they circled the unopened bank in a steady, humid rhythm. Al wore a sandwich-board sign that I couldn’t quite make out. She had one of her kids with her, a girl with long arms and legs. Their shoulders and backs were straight as they marched around like soldiers in a grim parade.

I finished my coffee and crossed the street to get a closer look. Al’s sign said “NO CONTRACT: NO WORK!” Below the slogan was a caricature of the bank president drawn to look like a mafia don. I wanted suddenly to redraw it, to help in some way, any way. Al gave me an almost imperceptible nod and kept on moving along the picket line. Her daughter gave me a little smile and then turned her head away. I returned her grin and felt my face grow pink and flushed beneath my beard.

I didn’t wait for Al to return as she rounded the far end of the line, I shuffled home without looking back.

The seventies were waning, the newspapers filled with revolution in Iran and Disco Dancing. I turned Dietrich into John Travolta, the shimmering 1930’s gown becoming a white suit, a chest-hair shirt, a gold medallion. It sold quickly, and prints and magazine reproductions were made of it. I quit my night job.

And “King Kong?” Kong wears yet another and final face now, a brave countenance attached to the giant ape’s body. The hairy right arm clings to the upper stories of the Empire State for dear life, while the left arm holds close to its chest in the palm of a tanned, calloused hand a team of lilliputian painters, a bearded man, and two children. The hand, seamlessly attached to the gorilla’s forearm, protects and lifts the tiny bodies. The face, its thin nose and pointed chin surrounded by a crown of yellow hair, wears a triumphant grin. It dares the menacing bi-planes to aim their guns at the already wounded enormous heart once again. . . .

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