The woman David Shumaker had thought of as his own, his darling Sonya, was in Los Angeles for a period of weeks, helping her mother through knee-replacement surgery and physical therapy. Almost 2,000 miles away. At the beginning, he had thought he might go crazy without her. In the tossing nights he suffered the fear that she would meet and fall in love with another man. He told himself it was just the distance, and his own long-standing insecurity about himself and women.
Now here he was, the one who had met someone else.
He told his father about it, because his father had introduced him to Sonya. The old man stared, frowning. “I thought you—” He stopped. “This is a joke, right?”
Sonya was the professor’s former assistant in the math department at Memphis.
“It’s no joke, Dad.”
His father was quiet for a time. Then: “What’s the deal here, son?”
“I guess I should call and tell her.”
“You’re really serious.”
“I’ll get her on the phone and just—spill it, I guess.” He had not quite voiced to himself the hope that the other would offer to make the call, given the old student-teacher friendship.
“This new someone else—what’s her name?”
“Alexa. Alexa Jamison.”
“How long have you known her?”
His first impulse was to lie. But there was no use. “A week,” he said.
“One week? Seven days?”
“Well, almost a week. Six days, actually, counting today.”
“Jesus Christ, David.”
The old man tilted his head slightly to one side, as if he had just noticed something about his son’s face. But he said nothing. They were in his study, sun and leaf shade in the window. It looked like the light of an ordinary day.
The young man’s mother came through the house calling her husband. “Wilfred? Are you still here? You were going to get milk—” She had come to the door and, seeing her son, walked over to give him a hug. “What a nice surprise.”
“Surprise is right,” said Professor Shumaker.
“Okay.” She folded her arms. “I’m waiting. You sold the painting.”
“I don’t think he’s ready to talk about it.”
“Really.” Her tone was light, nearly playful.
“This is serious, Lena.”
Shumaker said, “I can’t marry Sonya. I’m in love with someone else.”
For what seemed a long time, no one spoke.
His mother said, “I’ve got some work to do. You two talk about it and let me know.” She turned and went out, closing the door quietly.
“That’s my lady,” said the professor. “Through thick and thin she’s out the door.”
The young man said nothing.
“Dad, if you saw this woman—”
“If I saw her.”
“She’s the model for my new painting. It’s a nude.”
“You knew I was painting her.”
“I think I’d’ve remembered if you said it was a nude.”
“It’s a commission.”
“It happens all the time, Dad.”
“No kidding,” said the professor with a look.
“I’m sorry. But this whole thing just—took hold of me. I’m completely gone and if you saw her, you’d see why.”
“What the hell’re you talking about, boy? If I saw her.”
“It sounds worse than I mean it.”
“It can’t sound worse than it is.”
“Okay. You know, I can’t talk right now. I’ll call Sonya and tell her.”
“Just like that.”
“I won’t lie to her.”
“Don’t lie to yourself. That’s ego talking, you won’t lie to her—that means you want to tell her over the phone. There’s been marriage plans for Christ’s sake.”
“You’re saying I should tell her face-to-face, then.”
“What do you think?”
“God, I feel awful.”
“This thing with—you’re sure it’s serious? I mean the first time you see her in your life, she takes her clothes off.”
“That isn’t how it happened. There was—I talked with her.”
“You talked with her.”
“We had coffee.”
“And then she took her clothes off.”
“No. Look—it’s a sitting, Dad. A sitting. The model just sits there—”
“I know what a sitting is, son.”
The young man waited.
“You were so serious about Sonya. She’s been like one of the family. She is one of the family.”
He looked down. “I swear I never felt anything as strong as this.”
The professor seemed to be waiting for him to explain further. Then: “Why’re you telling me—us—about it anyway?”
“I guess I wanted your advice. I wouldn’t have accepted the commission if I thought—I—I wish I hadn’t accepted it. But I did, and Alexa’s walked into my life and I’m completely gone on her.”
“And she feels the same way about you.”
“It’s crazy, I know.”
“Well, there’s not much to say, then.”
“Is there.” It wasn’t a question.
“You guess not.”
Again, they said nothing for a time.
“That poor girl’s been like part of the family.”
“I feel terrible.”
“Well, just don’t break it off over the damn telephone. That’d be cowardly.”
“It’s like I’m cheating on a wife.”
“No,” Wilfred Shumaker said simply. “You cheated on your fiancée. And your mother was on the phone with her mother just this morning.”
When he thought about it, he could see that this thing with Alexa Jamison was a betrayal of the idea of what Sonya and he had been: the romance of that. Such a sweet beginning seems always to create a following inertia: the two families, everybody coming together as part of the story.
It happened this way:
The last semester of school, his father and he went to a Memphis in May party on the roof of the Madison Hotel. Wilfred introduced Sonya to him as his star pupil. Sonya extended a soft hand, and the young man shook it, and they walked to the table where the wine and the drinks were, and waited in line, talking. They liked each other instantly. She had decided that she wanted to teach, and he joked about being about to graduate from college and still having to be driven around by his father. The old, rusted car he’d been driving since high school was on its last legs, he told her, and so each afternoon after his class ended he had to hang out in the upstairs terrace of the student center waiting for a ride home with the professor, whose senior seminar in calculus went until 5:30.
“Of course you know how few guys would admit this sort of thing,” she said with a perfectly uncomplicated smile. Her straightforwardness was surprising and charming.
“Well,” he managed to say, “no sense lying about it.”
“Oh, but there is. I’ve lost all respect for your manliness. You don’t have a cool car.”
“I have a cool bicycle. But it’s in my father’s garage and I haven’t been on it for years.”
She bit the edge of her thumbnail and smiled. “I’d get that tattooed on your chest,” she said, smiling again.
Later, with his father, being driven to his small efficiency apartment in the Cooper-Young district, he asked about her.
“Well, I don’t know all that much. She’s got a real talent for mathematical thought and theory, and her parents live out in L.A. That’s about it.”
“I like her,” Shumaker said.
The next night, as he stood in the terrace window of the student center and watched people move through the thin mist sweeping across the plaza below, she materialized out of the dimness, smiling up at him, quite lovely, a warm memory in the making. He rushed out to meet her.
“I came here on an impulse,” she said. “Hoping I’d see you.” Her straightforwardness again.
“I swear you were on my mind,” he told her. “And then you stepped out of the mist.”
It was true. He had actually been hoping she would appear.
“How poetic.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “So here we are.”
He texted his father to go on home without him.
They went down to the river in her little cluttered car, his knees against the dash because the passenger seat would not slide back. She found a parking space on Riverside Drive, and they walked along the trolley tracks for a block or so. Then he paid for a coach and horses to take them up to the Madison. The whole way up the long hill he kept looking at the side of her face while she talked. She went on in a stream of pleasant self-deprecation about growing up in Southern California, off Wilshire Boulevard in the City of Angels; the cool nights after blistering afternoons, the smog, the happy hours on the beach, her often-troubled high-school days, and how silly that had all been for meaning so much to her at the time. Then there was her piano-playing father, an attorney for Hollywood types, and her actress mother, who left the business to raise her. And there was Los Angeles itself. Sirens every night. A whole other class of people living up in the hills, in the big houses and the wildly extravagant villas.
Before the coach got up to Main Street, he took her into his arms and kissed her. Pure magic. They went over to Beale Street and danced at the Rum Boogie Café, and then strolled up to B. B. King’s Blues Club for barbecue and beer. It was a lovely long night of easy conversation about their respective circumstances, like old friends catching up with each other. Both were twenty-two and were finishing their degrees, his in art and hers in mathematics. They were both unemployed in their respective fields, and were making do, as she expressed it. He was a greeter and server at his uncle Terry’s restaurant, and she worked the ticket booth at the Malco Paradiso. He was living in the small efficiency apartment, a converted garage, really, with one window in the closet-sized bathroom and another in the only door, and she lived in a two-bedroom backyard rental house in Chickasaw Gardens, which she had shared with a gay clarinetist named Forest, who left after the first month for India, he said, to avoid the drag of 9-to-5. She’d decided to see if she could make the rent alone, and was proudly surprised that she could. And no 9-to-5, either; six to eleven at night. She laughed softly, saying this, and he said he liked the sound of the laugh. He spoke of the peculiar fact that your laugh could absolutely determine how well you did in company, and he faked a bad one, a goofy mule-sounding bray, just to hear her laugh again. Later, when even the crowd on Beale Street had thinned out, they strolled back down to the river. The light on the water shone brightly, and he had an idea that this would be something about which they would reminisce, telling how they came together. How the night shimmered.
That was a year and four months ago.
Once in those first days, they sat together in her car parked at the edge of the river, sipping Chianti and eating figs with walnuts and little wedges of cheese, making up stories about the people who walked by—giving them whole lives and histories and complications, putting sorrows and joys around them like invisible capes as they strolled past. He made sketches of them and showed them to her, and they talked about the series of river scenes he might paint, and call the whole exhibit Mississippi. Yes, he would do that.
Two weeks later, he bought a ring with a salary advance from Uncle Terry, who sometimes played guitar and sang at the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. He took her to see him play, and then the two of them rode the trolley down to the river and around to Main Street. On the patio of the Blue Fin Café, he dropped the ring into her glass of white wine, as he had seen it done in the movies. She wept when she saw it, and, standing to kiss him, knocked the glass over, and wept some more.
The following night, they went to his father’s house, and Uncle Terry was there, too, and they had a big dinner that Lena had prepared. Sonya’s parents spoke to everyone on the telephone. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to David Shumaker, who was turning twenty-three at the end of the month. The day he bought the ring, he had taken sketches to the dealers on Main Street, and there was interest from three different galleries. They would be married as soon as he had his first show, and by that time they might both be teaching. If the exhibit did well, they could do it sooner. It was just a matter of producing enough work, and he was spending long hours each day drawing and doing preliminary sketches of the scenes.
They spent every available moment together through the spring and summer. They confided in each other about secret feelings concerning others, old and new fears, affections, hopes, disappointments. They made love on the ragged old divan in his apartment, and spent whole afternoons playing in the sunlight through the one window in the door and planning how life would be after they were married.
In the interim they would earn certification to teach. They might end up teaching in the same school. He would win prizes for his series of paintings called Mississippi. They would fly off together into the limitless blue distances. They fantasized that, just as her once-roommate had flown off to avoid the 9-to-5 drag, they too would fly away, after Shumaker made big money on the paintings. She with her talent for math would handle the finances; she would be his business manager in their travels through India, the far-off exotic ends of the Earth. Talking about all this, he would make her laugh by pronouncing the country’s name in what he called high British: “IN-dyaa.”
In early September, after she flew to L.A. and there were only phone calls between them, it became difficult finding time to talk with her. Seeking reassurance, he teased about taking a plane out there to surprise her.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said. “I don’t like that.”
“I was joking.”
“Don’t joke. I don’t feel like jokes right now.”
“Come on,” he said. “You?Wouldn’t you like to see me?”
“My mother’s driving me batty. I’m sorry. It’s awful to say, but I’d like to see anyone but her these days. And my father’s not far behind.”
The parents and their troubles.
Each call became a session of complaining about them. Both were in their sixties, and they wanted her to come home for good. They had never dreamed that sending her to the University of Memphis would mean that she would decide to live there. They hated Memphis. Each night at dinner, her father found subtle ways to disparage the place, while her mother grieved sullenly over some perceived slight or other coming from the other two. “Being an only child sucks,” she told Shumaker. “I’m between them, and they go back and forth—they can’t stand to be in the same room, and then they can stand it—you know? All of a sudden they won’t take a step without each other. They’re the heroes of their own movie about love. There’s no middle ground. I’m the middle ground.”
In the evenings after the tensions of dinner, her father would sit at the piano in the parlor and pound away on a Chopin nocturne as if it were something requiring that kind of force. And her mother would sit with a TV tray of various snacks and candies at her elbow, her leg supported by a big leather hassock, watching old movies on TCM—those chatty films of the thirties and forties—apparently oblivious to the thundering of the piano. Their daughter was quite adept at describing all this at length. Shumaker listened, and tried to keep track. He thought it was the distance that was making her seem so sour.
“Come home,” he said.
“I can’t. God! Quit torturing me. Please.”
He did not say, as he wanted to, Come on, babe. Where’s my funny darling?
He went to classes to earn certification, and was looking to find work teaching in the area. The only available positions were substitute jobs. But he went on taking the courses and working for his uncle. There wasn’t much opportunity to work on his sketches and paintings, and his heart wasn’t in it with Sonya so far away, in other weather and time.
All this was before he began work on the portrait. Before he met Alexa Jamison.
The commission came from her boyfriend, who wanted it as a birthday gift for himself. She was twenty-four, and the boyfriend was eighty-three. He had made a fortune in local real estate, and he managed all the concerts, plays, movie openings, and other events at the Orpheum Theatre. His name was Buddy Lessing. He knew everyone, and according to all the stories about him, he was tight as a drumhead. But evidently he was also cool. He had once smoked dope with Bob Dylan’s band. And last summer, within the compass of a single day, he walked on the high catwalk of the Duomo in Florence with a group of tourists, and then later helped thwart a bomb plot in the Frankfurt airport by noticing a man leaving a bag next to a newspaper kiosk. He led a wild life. People liked him; women liked him. At least initially. He had been married seven times. One day he ambled into Terry’s restaurant with three young men, and saw a couple of the young man’s paintings hanging along the back wall. One was of Lena Shumaker in tender sunset hues, sitting at the edge of the river with the bridge to Arkansas in the background. The other was of Hemingway in his forties, leaning on a table, thick arms spread, looking off to the right.
“Who did those? They’re very good.”
“I did,” said Shumaker. “That’s my mother.”
“And that’s Ernest Hemingway.”
“No shit, son.”
“I met the guy, you know. When I was a young man. In Cuba. Before Castro. I was a good newspaperman. Once. Back in the early Jurassic period. But I met him. Shook hands with him. Big barrel-chested fella with a limp handshake. But then maybe he was a little sauced.”
“Wow.” Shumaker had made the painting from a picture in a magazine article.
The elderly man brought a billfold from his suit pocket and took out a photograph. “Can you do me a painting of this girl?”
“I think so.”
“Her name is Alexa. Would you say that’s a sexy name?”
“Alexa Jamison. So there’s whiskey in it, too.”
“Jameson Irish Whiskey, son.”
“You think I’m cracked, don’t you?”
“I’ll pay you a hundred bucks.”
“Can’t do it for that, sir.”
“Kidding. Three hundred.”
“I’ll give you seven hundred more.”
Shumaker looked at him.
“No doubt you’ve heard I’m a money squeezer.”
Mr. Lessing seemed suddenly tired of the talk. He sighed. “Fifteen hundred. Not a penny more.”
“‘Yes sir no sir.’ Somebody worked on you growing up. I don’t know that I like the result.”
The young man said nothing.
“Your parents still with us?”
“What do they do?”
“My father’s in the mathematics department at Memphis. My mother teaches English at Rhodes.”
Lessing grinned. “Pedigree.”
“Well, so we have a deal. One thing. I want a nude. Think you can do that? Think you can do it without wanting to put your hands on her? She’s gonna be my wife, you know.”
The young man saw the blotches in the other’s skin, the sacks under the watery gray eyes. He said, “It’s a professional circumstance, sir. I’ve done them before.” In fact, he had done one, his junior year at Memphis, and the model was someone he knew from other classes, a friend with ample Renaissance roundnesses from shoulders to hips, and there were nine other students in the room.
“So it would be routine for you.”
Shumaker looked at the picture. “Yes.”
“Somebody beautiful as this?”
“Trick question, kid. There’s nobody beautiful as this.”
Shumaker told him what he wanted to hear, and indeed the woman in the picture was beautiful.
The efficiency apartment had the one window in the door, and when Sonya came to visit him one morning he had made the joke that, framed there, he saw the painting he could make of her. He had been planning to do so, had made her stand there in the window while he imagined it; he had even sketched her for it. And now he was going to do this other, Alexa Jamison, and it would be a nude.
The photograph did not do her justice.
She was astonishing. Shumaker felt that he understood the word “beauty”itself in a new way when he first saw her framed in the window. Midmorning light on her blond hair, like filamental fragments of the sun itself.
Young as she was, it turned out that she had been previously married, and had a child who lived with her mother down in New Orleans. She told Shumaker this in that first meeting. She also claimed that she loved Buddy Lessing. “The most fascinating man,” she said. “He told me that of all his wives, except the first one, I’m the best.”
“Damn,” Shumaker said.
“Well he’s honest. And I like that.”
“But—God. He ranks them?”
“I’m the next best. We don’t talk about the others.”
They went to Otherlands Coffee Bar, and she asked him about himself; it became something like a job interview. She had a contract Lessing had made up, that he wanted Shumaker to sign. The contract stipulated that the painting be finished by October 20. One month. He asked if it could be changed to read “on or about” that date, and she made the change. “I’ll get him to go along.” He saw the smooth skin of her hands, the bitten nails, which only added to the attractiveness, as if that plain little facet held her to the Earth. He had never seen skin so flawless. Looking into her blue eyes, he was already thinking of combinations of color. Light-blue water with depths.
“So,” she said. “Tomorrow?”
“Morning? I have classes. And a job that takes up the late afternoons and evenings.”
“Morning it is,” she said.
Watching her drive away from the café he thought of Sonya. He called her number, even though it wasn’t yet seven o’clock in L.A. He got her voicemail. “Missing you,” he said. “I know it’s early.”
The following morning, before light, he was up and readying himself. He had three stretched and primed canvases the size of windows, and he put one on the easel and set out the paints he would use and the other tools, the pencils and putty knives and brushes. He arranged everything supposing she would stand for the portrait. But when she arrived, smelling of flowers and bath salts, and immediately got out of her jeans and white blouse, she went to the unmade divan and stretched out on her side.
“Um,” he said. “Is that—”
She sat up, leaned on one hand, and rested the other on her upper thigh, legs crossed demurely at the knees. “This is probably better. You don’t want me sitting at that table, do you?”
He was acutely aware of the little triangle of blond hair below her navel. “No.”
“This okay with you, then?” she asked.
“It’s good, sure.”
“I’m comfortable this way. I might fall asleep lying down.”
“No, that’s a perfect pose.”
Embarrassed, trembling a little, he took up a pencil and, as he did with every portrait, began lightly sketching.
Through that first hour, he was carefully detached, gazing at the several structures of her perfect body as themselves alone, separate forms, as if he were looking at a statue. But then something began to take hold of him, and he stopped work and asked if she would like something cold to drink. The morning was already terribly hot. Even the air-conditioning was futile against the humidity. The glass of orange juice he poured for her sweated, and she lounged back on the divan, with her top pulled haphazardly over her, and talked about how she never dreamed she could love someone so much older. He thought he heard something faintly sardonic in her tone.
“You’re tall and broad shouldered.” She sipped the orange juice. “My little boy’s father’s like you.”
She shrugged. “Gone off.” Her shoulders made him think about shoulders as a feature. He had the thought that what he felt now was the province of fantasy and cliché.
“He ever see his son?”
“Doesn’t know about him. Wouldn’t care if he did.”
“I would,” Shumaker said.
“Well, you’re different.”
“Sounds like he’s different. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t want to see his own son.”
“Okay. He’s different.”
“So where’s he gone off to?”
Again, she shrugged. “Somewhere out west, I guess. Northern Pacific, last I heard. He grew a big white beard and looks like Jerry Garcia now. Last time I saw him anyway.” Her lips curled slightly at the corners; he thought of kissing them. It wasn’t an urge to kiss her, but a sense of the voluptuous ripe softness of the mouth.
He said, “My mother used to say that about me being broad shouldered. Like it’s a good thing.”
“Oh, it’s a very good thing.”
“I never could see myself as being any different than other guys, though.” Suddenly, without premeditation, his whole mind was fixed on saying the right things to make her come to him.
She looked straight at him. “I think you’re very attractive. I like your eyes.”
“Nothing like how beautiful yours are.”
“Your irises don’t touch the bottom lids. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”
“They don’t—I never noticed that.” He felt stupid.
“Buddy says he’s sure I’ll probably take up with other men after we’re married.”
“He does.” The tremulousness of his own voice surprised and embarrassed him. Breathing had become a question of getting the air out of his chest. It seemed to be gathering just under his neck.
“I think he means to tempt me, really. See how far I’ll go.”
“Wanna see how far I’ll go?”
What followed was unlike anything he had ever experienced or dreamed. When at last it was over and they lay breathing and sighing, he said, “You can’t marry Lessing. My God.”
She smiled, turned, and offered herself for a kiss.
And he was aware of kissing her now, not just those lips. He grasped her by the shoulders. “I mean it,” he said again. “You can’t marry Lessing.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She giggled, almost inaudibly.
He let go, and simply sat there for a moment. “But—God. Don’t do it.”
“He’s very nice, you know.” But she was starting again, kissing his chest.
“Say yes,” he said.
“Yes,” she murmured, and licked down his abdomen.
He saw her four more times that week. The painting, the use of the oils, began as a blur. Twice he started over. At the end of each sitting, there would be another session on the divan, turns and refinements that would give him fever dreams in the nights. She told him of her loves, the travels she had done, how it was that she took up with Lessing. None of it made any difference; none of it quite sank in. The sound of her voice quelled all the agitations of his mind.
“You’re actually gonna marry Lessing?”
She shrugged. “I’ve been putting him off a while now.”
“I have to make some headway with this painting.”
“We’ll play around, and he travels a lot.”
“But you don’t understand. I’m in love.”
She leaned into him, pressing her lips to the side of his neck. Then: “I feel exactly the same. Isn’t it amazing?”
Sonya called early the next week to say that her mother and father wanted to come with her when she returned from L.A.
For an instant, he could not speak.
“They think the whole family should get together. They’ve decided to try and make the best of me living in Memphis.”
“They think they’re coming with me. Yes.”
“I—well I don’t think they should spend the money.”
“I don’t care about the money. I’d rather they stay home.”
“You can’t get them to stay home?” He almost told her the whole thing.
“I’m going to pitch a fit and see if I can make them put it off.”
“That’s probably best.”
After a beat, she said, “Do you miss me?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You sound funny.”
He listened for whatever else she might make of things.
“You haven’t met someone else, have you?” she asked, clearly teasing.
“Have you?” He hoped she had.
“I love you,” she said.
Nearly choking on the very air, he said, “Me, too. You.”
He drove downtown, to Automatic Slim’s, and sat outside on the sidewalk. Two couples were there who knew each other. Normal people having a good time, leading calm, uncomplicated lives. He drank a bottle of Chianti, then walked up to the top of Union, and looked out at the river and the bridge to Arkansas.
He could not sleep, think, eat, be with anybody else. He spent hours with the painting after she’d gone, sometimes just sitting, staring at her face, the face he had painted. He knew almost nothing about her. She had a child in Louisiana. She was from there, but lived for a long time in Little Rock. Her father died before she was old enough to remember him. There were no brothers or sisters. She had lived with her mother in Little Rock, and they’d had a falling out over her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. She said the word “boyfriend”and then smirked. “‘Boyfriend’ sounds so juvenile. I use ‘beau.’ The first part of the word ‘beauty,’ right? Just add the t and y.”
“You had a relationship with your mother’s boyfriend?”
She looked at her nails, and her eyelids came down slightly over those eyes. “A brief one.”
“How did you meet Lessing?”
“Let’s not talk anymore.”
“Please,” he said.
“I met him one afternoon. I was walking along Beale Street, looking in the clubs. Broad daylight, and there he was sitting outside the King’s Café, smoking a big cigar. First thing he said to me was, ‘You’re exquisite.’ Just like that. I said, ‘Thanks.’ And he said, ‘Young lady, I have a lot of money and I’d like to show you a good time.’ It was so frank and appealing, you know? And I had no money left, I was out of a job. Actually I was thinking of panhandling.”
“What was your job before?”
She considered, but she was still thinking about Lessing. “We’re a lot alike, actually. I do have fun with him. He’s eighty-three and for him it’s all one big game. That’s how he thinks of it. A great fun exciting game, and he even calls it that. Everything’s just gaming. From one thing to the next. He does what he wants and he sees who he wants and spends what he wants.”
“He’s eighty-three,” Shumaker said. “It’s grotesque that you’re with him.”
“Don’t talk like that. Why do you want to ruin everything like that?” She seemed about to cry. “People shouldn’t say mean shit like that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re not with him just for the money.”
“Maybe I was at first.” Her tone now was defiant.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Shumaker said. “Please forgive me.”
“Here you are with this beautiful gift, young and strong and pretty and you have to talk like that about a man you don’t know.”
“Forgive me. Please.” He put his arms around her. “Please, I’m in love with you. I’m just jealous. It’s just jealousy talking.”
They were quiet, then, for a very long while. And then she fell asleep in his arms. He lay there watching the light move to the other side of the window in the door. His arm hurt. But he kept still, and at last she woke up, yawning, and he asked again for her forgiveness.
He stopped going to the classes, and started getting things wrong at the restaurant. He couldn’t make eye contact the way he used to, and for some terrible reason he saw all the women as being naked. He led people to unset tables, forgot menus, got orders wrong, and one night he spilled hot coffee in a man’s lap. The folded napkin there saved the man from being badly burned. His uncle had spoken to his father, and so of course his uncle knew about Alexa.
“You can’t keep messing up like this.”
“I know.” They were in the men’s room. Shumaker’s hands shook pulling a paper towel from the dispenser. “I’ll do better.”
“Why don’t you bring the girl here?”
His mind was blank.
“You ashamed of us or something? Why hasn’t she been to meet your parents, for that matter.”
“I’m—I’m painting her. That’s the only time I see her.”
“You don’t ask her out for a date? This girl you’re ass-over-elbows in love with?”
“Well, you’re a grown man and all that. Your business, but this place is my business, and if you keep messing up I’m going to have to find somebody else.”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me, for Christ’s sake. I’m your uncle.”
The next morning, at the appointed time, after they had set up and he had tried again with the painting and found that his hands shook too badly to make much progress at all, he went to the divan and sat next to her.
“Well?” she asked. “What do you want to do now, lover?” She leaned toward him.
“Come out with me. I want you to meet the family. We could have dinner at my parents’ house.”
Kissing the side of his face, she said, “I’m occupied in the evenings. You know that.”
“You can’t get away for one evening?”
Now she stopped, and shook her head. “He’s been good to me.”
“But you said we could see each other and—”
“I know what I said. Oh, baby. Let’s not talk about it now.”
She put her hands in his hair.
The next morning, his mother came to the apartment. He was sitting at the table, staring across at the unfinished painting, when he heard the gravel pop in the little driveway outside. Glancing out the window in the door, he saw her car pulling in. He stood as if caught, and knocked the chair over. “Christ.” The rasping in his own voice surprised him. He looked at the mess of the place—clothes strewn on the bed and chairs, the scraps of aborted sketches and versions in a welter of brushes and tubes of paint on the one table, and the several finished and unfinished canvases leaning against the wall. Then he was looking for signs of what had transpired on the divan. He covered the painting, righted the chair, and opened the door before his mother could ring the bell.
“So,” she said. “Evidently your father is the only one of us you can talk to.”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve talked to you both.”
“I’ve been on the phone with Sonya’s mother. She’s picked me for her new friend, and that carries a price, I’m afraid. I don’t mean to sound petty.”
He stepped out and closed the door. “Did you tell her?”
She glanced beyond him. “That’s your job. But I’m thinking I won’t pick up anymore when the woman calls. I mean she’s talking about all of us getting together. Well, they would, wouldn’t they, under the circumstances. That’s what anyone would expect. It’s actually very nice, and it fills me with guilt and foreboding and dread. ‘So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt.’” She looked at him. It was a little game they had played since he was in high school: She would toss him quotes from Shakespeare, and he would try to guess the character and the play.
“Hamlet,” he said. “Gertrude.”
She nodded. “Good.” Then, after a brief pause: “You are going to take care of this, right?”
He could only nod.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go eat breakfast.”
“I’ve been concentrating so hard on the painting,” he told her. “I forget to eat.”
“Can I see what you’ve got so far?”
“Not a chance.”
“All right.” She stared for a few seconds. Then: “Shall we go?”
A wind was getting up from the west, a thunderstorm approaching. He let her drive him to Brother Juniper’s. There was a line. They stood under the porch roof with others and waited. “So when will we have the chance to meet her?”
“It’s only been a couple weeks.”
The rain started, and over the roofs of the buildings down the street lightning forked and flashed. The rain came down in big drops, then just ceased, and there was only the wind.
“Well. Are we going to meet her? Your hands are shaking.”
He folded his arms.
“I don’t think I like what this is doing to you.”
“I’m fine. I’m working on a painting. You know how dopey I get when I’m painting.”
The line in front of them moved. “We want you to bring her to dinner.”
“I’ll ask. I’m having trouble with the painting.”
“You’re looking at the real thing.”
“You’re in love.”
Hearing his mother say the words made him feel suddenly as though there was something profoundly false about it all. He was not prepared for the sensation. When they finally sat down, he had lost his appetite. He ordered coffee, and tried to keep his hands still while she ate a Spanish omelet and a bowl of blueberries with yogurt.
“Being in love takes away the appetite,” she said, “or else increases it.” She smiled. She was a very appealing lady, with a rich alto voice and a charming aphoristic way of speaking. Her students admired her. “Do you know what I think love is really about?”
“Well, I am older than you are and I get to make these kinds of pronouncements. Especially to my son, who apparently has no idea.”
“I know what I feel,” he said.
“Of course you do. And you felt the same thing for Sonya.”
“No. I thought I did.”
“Yes.” His mother smiled tolerantly. “Of course. Romeo forgets Rosaline in the first instant he sees Juliet. But they’re children,you know. Juliet’s not yet fourteen.”
“I know the play,” he said.
“Do you know when I knew I was in love with your father? We were horseback riding and he fell. He looked so silly, and he was embarrassed and tried to hide how bad he’d hurt his hip. That walk, with him struggling so hard to keep from limping. The hip was cracked, you know. I never thought I’d have any interest in him at all. I mean with a name like Wilfred. And there he was trying to hide how much it hurt, and my heart just went crack.”
The young man knew something of the story—a version of it: She had always said that it’s in our weaknesses and vulnerability that we are all most lovable. He said, “I don’t know where or how, or anything. I just know I’m gone on her.”
“Well, you have to bring her over. And you have to tell Sonya. In person.”
“I know. Wilfred already said.”
“And don’t be a smart-ass.”
He was silent.
“I assume this new girl has parents we’ll have to meet and get to know?”
“No. They’re gone.” He thought it was simpler just to leave it at that. No part of the history, even what little he knew of it, would please or reassure his mother.
“I’ve always thought of you as my levelheaded son,” she said. “So I’m gonna trust that you know what you’re doing.”
Smiling at her, he was full of the sense of deceit, and hoped it did not show in his face.
She wiped her mouth with her napkin. Then: “Well, let us know. We’ll welcome her.”
Her eyes narrowed in a way he recognized. “Ma’am?” she asked. “What am I, a schoolteacher lady?” Then she made a show of seeming to arrive at a realization, raising her hand, index finger pointing up. “Oh, right. I guess I am, huh.”
“Sorry,” he told her.
“I think it’s a safe bet that you’re gonna need that very word a lot in the days to come.”
He nodded, and forced a smile.
Reality seemed to be collapsing. Something had been unleashed in him. As the days went on, he began to see every woman sexually, and he could not keep from imagining them in bed. The details of lovemaking, the physiology of it, the fact that women opened their legs in that way, those images kept rushing through him like some sort of pornographic new knowledge. He kept seeing it, kept seeing her. He spent an hour working on the painting and dreaming of her on the morning of Sonya’s arrival, and was late to the airport. He decided to say there was a backup, an accident on 240. This was a tremendously hot day for fall. Late October and burning. Not a cloud in the sky. There really was a lot of traffic, so it wouldn’t be entirely dishonest to say that he had been held up.
And here he was, already thinking about seeming honest. He had wanted to be a man like his father, someone of steady quiet integrity. A married man with a family. It raked through him like the knowledge of mortality that he had thought of Sonya as the mother of his future children.
Her plane had landed, but was not at the gate. Relieved, he went to Maggie O’Shea’s and had a beer. Then he walked over to where she would come out. He waited for what seemed a long time after the plane was shown to be at the gate. And finally here she came. She had put makeup on, and smiled shyly, an uncharacteristically fretful smile.
She put two bags down and stretched out her arms, and he accepted her embrace, breathing the fresh flower scent in her hair. She wore earrings he had given her. Leaning back, arms still around him, she murmured, “Well, aren’t you going to kiss me?”
He did so. She moved against him and held tight and opened her mouth. It was a long, terribly uncomfortable kiss. Finally she let him go and he picked up the bags.
“Let me have that one,” she said.
“It’s my purse, you goof.”
“There’s two more bags coming. I bought some things.”
A baritone male voice announced that there were only two places where smoking was allowed in the airport. He heard the name Maggie O’Shea’s again.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s the matter?”
He stopped. There wasn’t enough air or light.
“You smell like alcohol, David.”
“I had a beer.”
“Okay.” She waited. “Well?”
“I don’t know how to say this.”
“You better tell me.” Her eyes flashed. “You’re scaring me.”
“All right. I’m just going to say it out. Okay? I can’t—I can’t—I—I can’t marry you. I’m in love.”
“Someone got you pregnant, and so you—” Before she finished the sentence, her eyes widened, and the color began leaving her face.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“I fell in love.”
“You’re not kidding.”
“No.” He felt stronger now, looking into the narrowing dark eyes, the face twisting slightly, all the attractiveness he had seen leeching out in a furious glare.
“You came here to tell me this? You picked me up, just to tell me this?”
“Dad thought I should tell you in person.”
Shumaker simply stared.
“And—so we’re done, then? You’re gonna take me to my place and say goodbye forever.”
“We can still be friends,” he got out.
In the next instant, it seemed, he was on his back and a man was holding his face between rough, long-fingered hands. “You’re all right,” the man said. “Help’s coming.”
“Don’t move. You took a fall.”
“I’ve got to pick up Sonya.”
“Just stay still.”
A void followed. Nothingness, and then he opened his eyes to see people gliding past him. He realized vaguely—as if he were in the middle of trying to parse a dream—that he was being carried out of the airport on a stretcher. A nervous-looking little bald man who was walking along next to the men carrying him spoke: “I saw it all. They were talking and suddenly she hit him with her bag, and he went over. He hit his head pretty hard on the floor.”
“Yes, sir. We’ve got him.”
There was another span of absence, of nowhere, not even being cognizant of sleep. He found himself sitting on a hard surface, not much wider than an ironing board, being put carefully down on his back, and riding into a confining off-white tube. And soon he was lying in a bed, and a tall black man with thick dark eyebrows and mustache was standing over him. Shumaker thought of disguises and masks.
“You’ve had a serious concussion.”
“I was supposed to pick up Sonya.”
“You have no fracture, but you’re going to have to be very still for a while, and rest.”
“Someone said the young woman hit you with her handbag, and you fell and hit the back of your head.”
“But I’m supposed to—Sonya.”
“We were told the young woman took a cab home.”
“My parents should—I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at my apartment at five.”
The doctor looked at his watch. Then: “What day is it?”
Shumaker told him.
“When is your birthday?”
He told him that, too. “Look, I’m all right.”
He tried to sit up, then lay back down. “A little dizzy.”
“Let’s just wait a couple hours, see how you are. Concussion’s nothing to fool with.”
“She hit me with her bag?”
“Fellow said you were talking, and she looked to be getting agitated, and suddenly she just up and swung the bag. They said she waited for her bags, and took them and went on out of the place while people were working over you. You were out cold, apparently.”
“I went there to meet her.”
“That’s the way it is with concussions. You know, you never see the punch that knocks you out. And believe me, you were out when they brought you in here.”
Suddenly, he was crying. The tall man stood there patiently, one hand on his chest, and waited. But the young man couldn’t gain control of himself. “Can you help me?” he broke forth finally. “If I could see someone. My mother or father.”
“They should be here soon. There’s a police officer here who wants to ask you a couple things. You up to it?”
The police officer, who had been at the airport, walked over with a little notebook and a pencil, and asked for his full name and his address. Shumaker gave them to him.
“I’m assuming you knew the young woman?”
“Can you say what happened?”
“I broke up with—I broke our engagement. And I guess she hit me.”
The officer wrote something down, and seemed to cough.
“I was gonna do it over the phone but my father said I should do it in person.”
He nodded, and turned and coughed again, and in the next moment Shumaker realized he was laughing. The officer cleared his throat, ran his forearm across his mouth, and took a breath. “Guess you’ll want to say something to your father.”
Once more, the cough, the head turning away. Then: “Uh—agh. Well. Do you want to press charges? What she did qualifies as assault and battery.”
Shumaker looked at him.
“I don’t want to see her again.”
“I guess not.”
“I’d like to forget about it, please.”
“I understand,” the officer said, folding the notebook. “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”
It seemed that in a blink he was gone. Replaced by the tall doctor, looming over him, all concentration.
“Did I pass out again?”
“You went to sleep. An hour. See if you can sleep a little more.”
“Do my parents know what happened?”
“I believe the young woman may have called your mother. She’s—your mother—she’s on her way here. They’re on their way here.”
“The young woman?”
The doctor smiled. “No. Your parents.”
“Did I have a CAT scan?”
“That’s right. And there’s no bleeding.”
“I’m tremendously sleepy.” He sobbed. “Is this normal?”
“It’s all to be expected.”
He slept. No dreams, nothing. Only a form of nonbeing that he recognized as of the same sort of absence of sensation that had come down on him in the airport. When he woke, he saw his mother sitting in the chair by his bed. His father stood gazing out the window at darkness.
“How long have I been here?” Shumaker asked her.
“A little over three hours.”
His father walked over to the bed. “You think you can sit up now?”
“Don’t go too fast,” said his mother.
He turned on his side and came to a sitting position. There was a little dizziness, but it wore off as he straightened. His mother stood before him and looked into his eyes.
“I have to get in touch with Alexa,” he told her.
“You can call her from home.”
“I was supposed to meet her at my place. I couldn’t get through to her.”
“We know why you can’t call her, son.” His father came and pulled gently on his arm above the elbow, helping him stand.
The doctor spoke from the door. “Take it slow. No lifting, and no straining for at least a week. And you should probably see your family doctor next week. Just to be cautious about it.”
“I will,” Shumaker said, feeling his father’s attention, like being nine years old again.
“You want to talk about it?” the professor asked.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” demanded his mother of them both, looking from one to the other.
“The new girlfriend belongs to someone else.”
“How’d you—” Shumaker began.
“Mr. Lessing walked into the restaurant looking for you. Told Terry you’re doing a portrait of his lady friend.”
“Yeah.” Wilfred Shumaker turned to his wife. “Lena, give us a second, will you?”
She stared for a moment and then went out.
“Okay, son. This is just—I’m really worried.”
“Dad, she’s the most amazing person.”
“Really. Okay, why is that? Really. Tell me how you know that. Have you seen her with other people? Is there some public record of service to humankind? What exactly do you know about her, son?”
“I know I’m in love with her.”
“And she’s supposed to marry a very powerful man in this city.”
“Lessing? He’s eighty-three.”
His father’s voice rose. “Don’t be naïve.”
For a moment, neither of them spoke.
“Look, you’re in here with a concussion, and I don’t get it. Terry says your work has suffered; you don’t come see us—”
“I don’t care about the painting, okay? I care about you with a concussion, and about what else might happen when this Lessing guy gets wind of what’s going on. And this—this Alexa, what’s she doing? How can you go along like this cheating with her, and knowing what she’s doing when she goes back to him? Does that look right to you? How does that feel?”
“I just know I have to be with her, Dad.”
“Well, where is she?”
There wasn’t anything to say.
“You have to be with her. Does she feel the same way about you? Where is she? Son, you just got clocked by one girl because of this other one, and where is she? Who is she? Are you in touch with her? Can you be in touch with her? You can’t bring her over to the house, because this is an affair. And you know there’s nothing at all romantic about this kind of thing—it’s sordid and low and vulgar, and it means lying and stealing around dark corners and worrying all the time about getting caught. Is that the kind of life you want? And for what? For a woman with a good body and sex?”
“Stop it,” Shumaker said.
“Well, really, son. You know what? When I was first married to your mother, I formed a friendship with this other woman, someone in the math department. We were at a conference together, and I got to liking being around her and listening to her talk and watching her move.” The professor looked over his shoulder at the doorway, then turned and lowered his voice. “So I said something about her, about how she was sexy, to Terry. You know? Brothers talking. And Terry had already been through his divorce with Megan—well you never knew Megan. But you know what he said to me? He interrupted me as I was talking, right? Two guys in their twenties, and he shook his head at me and said, ‘Buddy, even if she can plug that thing into the wall socket and make it spin. Don’t do it.’”
“Jesus,” said Shumaker, low.
“It’s a rough way to talk, I know. But the point was well taken.”
“I don’t want to marry Sonya anymore, Dad.”
His father raised his voice again. “I’m not talking about Sonya. Don’t be stupid. This isn’t about her. It’s not even about this—Alexa person. It’s about you. What kind of man you want to be. What kind of man I’m afraid you’re gonna turn yourself into.”
Again, they were both silent.
“Well, it is finally your business,” said the professor. And then he leaned in close. “But maybe just for me, just as a very small favor for me, okay? Could you maybe take some time—just a while, a little probationary period, say—where you try, for me, and maybe for your mother as well, to stop thinking with your dick?” He stared, nodded very slightly, then turned, walked to the door, and looked back. “Come on. We’ll take you home.”
“My car’s at the airport.”
“You can’t drive.” His tone was pure exasperation. He went on with sardonic patience: “We went and got your car. Your mother drove it to your place and I followed her. That’s why we didn’t get here right away. You’re not going to your place. You have to stay down for a few days. No exertions, no lifting, no driving or drinking. Just rest. You have to come with us.”
Shumaker followed his father down the long corridor, where his mother waited, looking sorrowful and embarrassed, too. In the car, they didn’t speak. The radio was on low, two men talking about the National Football League.
At the house, his father reached into his jacket pocket, brought out a small cellophane bag, and handed it to him. His cell phone and wallet were inside.
“Personal effects?” Shumaker asked.
His mother gasped. “That is not slightly funny.”
“I don’t think he meant it to be funny,” said his father.
“I’m sorry for all of this,” Shumaker told them. He went up to his room and sat on the bed. His parents had stayed downstairs and were talking in low tones; it sounded like an argument. He rang Alexa’s number. No answer. There was one message, from the night before—Sonya. “Just getting ready to come home. I can’t wait to see you. I love you.”
He lay back and listened to it again, and then tried once more to call Alexa. Nothing. Not even a way to leave a message. Just the ringing, while he listened and waited.
He tried the number over and over in the next four days. His mother brought food upstairs to the room and attempted to talk to him. His father came in once, but mostly kept to his downstairs study.
“I don’t understand why I have to stay here,” Shumaker said to his mother.
“You’ve had a concussion. There’s no mystery about it at all. You have to stay down. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re still unsteady on your feet.”
It was true. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom—the pain medication they had given him had a diuretic effect—he had to keep one hand on the wall and make his way slowly. The world spun. There were headaches. He lay in bed with the cell phone to his ear listening to the unanswered ringing of Alexa’s. It went on and on. He thought of calling Buddy Lessing. He could use the painting as pretext. But he lacked the nerve. Once he fell asleep with the little phone at his ear, and the faint clatter of the unanswered ringing on the other end, and woke up to find it silent and dead under his arm.
At the end of the long week he got into his rust-eroded car and drove to his apartment and to the pile of work, attempts to depict her in various sketches, and the abortive smearing of oil, as he thought of it, of the painting itself. His mother followed him, and watched him go inside. He waved from the door, called to her that he would be at the restaurant that evening.
Closing the door, he stood for a moment looking at the room: His mother had been busy here. The dishes were put away, the sink was clean. She had spread a comforter on the divan, and arranged the chairs around the one table. The recliner on which he had stacked work and clothes was clear, the clothes were hanging in the closet, and the work was neatly arranged on the top shelf of the cinder-block-and-plank bookcase. He moved to the divan and sat crying. There was nothing but junk in his mailbox. He looked into his little refrigerator and found one beer and a Styrofoam container of rice and beans from the Rum Boogie Café. He threw this away and drank the beer. He had a powerful thirst. After the beer, he gulped three tall glasses of water from the tap. Then he walked out into the sun and stood gazing up the short gravel drive to the road, thinking of Alexa. Where was she? He walked down the street to the 7-Eleven and the public phone. But it was broken; there was no handset. These kinds of phones were disappearing fast.
At last he drove to the Orpheum and parked across the street. There were already tourists gathering at the head of Beale Street, and police were standing at the barricade, smoking and talking. It wasn’t even noon yet and the heat was oppressive, humidity rising from the river. There wasn’t anyone at the Orpheum. The doors were locked, the big lobby empty and dark. Tonight was classic-movie night: Arsenic and Old Lace.
Back at the apartment, he tried to focus on the painting, and three hours passed with the quickness of work time: He looked up and realized that he had spent it toiling with unsteady fingers over one element of the color in the hair framing the face—that face—meticulously putting daubs of tawny shade on one side of a curl, a thin streak of white and gold on the other. He wanted to get it right, the way the sun blazed there. It was as if he were manipulating the light itself from the end of his brush. He stepped back and looked at what he had, the flawless body in that indolent pose. His heart leapt. He threw the brush he was holding against the door—and saw a man standing there, staring in at him through the window. His heart leapt again, and a sound rose from the back of his throat.
The other knocked on the glass, and that also startled him. He reached to open the door, gasping low. “Yes?”
“David Shumaker, right?”
The man wore a sweat-stained Memphis Redbirds baseball cap and a white short-sleeved shirt with big sweat circles under the arms. His unshaven face was squarish, wide jawed, with deep-socketed dull-brown eyes, and a thin nose that stood out of the center of it like a blade. “I’ve been coming here every day for a week,” he said. “Mr. Lessing wants to know what the progress is on his painting.”
“It’s not finished.”
He reached into his pants pocket and brought out an iPhone. “I’m supposed to take a picture of it.”
“It’s not ready for that,” Shumaker told him quickly. “Please. And my—the—the model hasn’t been anyplace where I could find her.”
“Nobody could find you, man.”
“I had an injury. I was in the hospital. I’m back now. And I want to finish the painting.”
The man looked past him into the apartment, at the painting. “Looks done to me, man.”
“It’s not finished,” Shumaker said.
“Okay.” The other shrugged. “I’ll tell him.”
“But I need the model.” Perhaps this was said a bit too forcefully.
The man’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’ll pass it on, buddy.”
“Tell her I’ve been trying to call her,” said Shumaker, adding quickly, “I mean could you please tell her for me?”
“Hey, I’m not in touch with her, man. I’ll tell Mr. Lessing.”
“But she’s got to know I couldn’t call her because I was in the hospital with an injury.”
“Got it,” the man said, walking away.
“Tell her I’m here,” said Shumaker.
He came to realize, during the course of the long afternoon, that the painting was actually quite good, and that his sense of the smeary nature of it was false, was a kind of holding on. It was a precise and achingly realistic rendering of her physical splendor. There was nothing left to do, short of starting over from some other angle, with another canvas.
And she was nowhere.
She did not come to him or answer her phone through the afternoon and into the evening. He went to the restaurant and took his uncle’s questioning about being assaulted by a young woman in an airport, in full view of everyone. Others teased him, talking about the fury of a woman scorned. And how, even so, even after attacking the offending former fiancé, Sonya had possessed the presence of mind to wait for her luggage before leaving the airport. A couple of the waitstaff knew her, of course, and they were obviously being careful not to speak of what she was doing with herself now, and he did not ask. He performed his job with a kind of blind diligence, always expecting Buddy Lessing to show up, or Alexa. But the night passed, and on his way home he stopped and used a credit card to buy a bottle of straight-rye whiskey. When he got to the apartment, he opened the bottle and poured a tumbler full, planning to drink himself into a stupor. It was something he might show Alexa, something that might cause her to take pity on him. But before he had drunk half of what he’d poured, it made him feel sick, and then, as if something in the very air were seeking to instruct him, he developed a toothache. It lasted the night; he ended up rubbing the whiskey on his gums to numb them.
Early that next morning as he started out of the place, sleepless and still feeling the toothache, there she was, coming down the gravel path from the road. He waited in the open door, expecting her to step into his arms. She smiled and edged past him, actually stepped aside when he reached for her. Moving to the divan, she sat down and gazed impassively at the painting on its easel. It was the unemotional stare of someone looking at herself in a mirror. Then she glanced at the room. “You cleaned the place.”
“I kept trying to call you,” he said. “I’ve been desperate. I got hurt. I thought you were gone for good. Jesus. I got hurt. I had a fall.”
“But you’re all right.”
“No, I’m not all right.” He picked up the bottle of whiskey on the table, and placed his paint-stained finger on the line that showed it was almost half gone. “You see this? I drank this down to there. Why didn’t you answer me? Why didn’t you call me back?” He put the bottle down hard. “You can’t imagine what I’ve—” She had spoken as he began, and he caught himself. “What?”
“We were in Spain.”
Smiling that alluring soft-lipped smile, she went on, in a faintly incredulous tone, as if there could be nothing more reasonable than deciding on a whim to fly across the Atlantic. “I said we were in Spain.”
“Buddy decided he wanted to see Barcelona. And Madrid. And drink Spanish wine.”
“You know how he is. He’s got all the money in the world and he’s like a spoiled little boy who can’t be controlled.”
“I love you,” Shumaker told her. “I’m in love with you.”
“You just love misbehaving with me. Like I love it. I do. And I do misbehave sometimes, you know, just to misbehave. I have fun. And I’ve just been to Spain.”
He took a step toward her. “I love you. My God, Alexa.”
“You don’t know me.”
“What’s changed?” He could barely get the words out.
“Well, we finally got married. On a cruise up the Spanish coast. Buddy and me. The captain married us.”
“Oh, God. You—oh, Jesus—”
“It’s all right, baby, nothing else has changed. Well, almost nothing else.”
“You—” He moved to the recliner and sat down, like a collapse. The painting was across from him, exactly to her left. It was as if she were posing for a photograph of herself with the painting—she had even taken something of the same pose, the legs crossed, the long, lovely torso very straight, so that the breasts stood out.
“Oh, God,” he breathed.
“I told you I was engaged. What’d you think that meant?”
“Why didn’t you call me back? All those calls.”
“I left my phone in Memphis. Isn’t that silly? And I couldn’t make up an excuse to call you from Spain, on my honeymoon.” She sighed; it was more of a little laugh. “But you know what? It turns out it would’ve been okay.” She looked at the painting. The gesture made it clear that now she was going to change the subject. With an air of someone who feels relief after long effort she sighed. “Ah, so it’s done now. And what a perfect likeness.”
“Please leave,” he managed to say.
“No, but I mean it really is okay.” She pulled the skirt she wore up over her knees. “Come here, lover.”
After a series of dazzling passes on the divan, she sat up and stretched, as if just waking from a long nap. Gazing at her long spine, he realized finally that it wasn’t the things she did during sex so much as the extraordinary flawlessness of all her features, of every turn of flesh and hair, and the slender hands, the eyes, the unreal fineness of her form and her willingness to use herself for delights. She looked over her shoulder at him.
“Oh, Christ,” he said. “I don’t care. He’s an old, old man. I don’t care. I’ll wait for something to happen.”
“Stop it. Stop that.”
“No, I mean it. And we can go on like this. I’ll find a way to make it last. I’ll fuck this painting up—I’ll splash black paint on it or burn it, so I have to start over.”
He lay there watching this. The laugh went on. “No,” she got out finally. “Don’t do that. I’m telling you. Really, it’s all right.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Well, see—thing is, he knows all about it.”
“He—what? He knows about this?”
“It came out when we were in Madrid. And he—well, he wants to watch us. He—he says he wants to sit and watch us do it.”
“He knows about us.”
She merely gazed back, a stare as blank as that of a carved stone face. “Seventy-three calls from you on my phone. No explaining that anyway, right?”
A sudden rush of fright gripped him. “You’re serious.”
“So even if it didn’t come out when we were in Spain.”
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds.
“And?” Shumaker demanded.
“And what? He wants to watch us.”
“Jesus. The answer’s no, right?”
“Well, I guess. If you say so.”
He was unable to utter a word.
“But, I don’t know. I mean I think it might be kind of kinky.”
“Kinky,” he said. “Kind of? Kind of kinky?”
“Darling. It’s all—being alive. New things. I’m not settling down for any one man, and he’s all right with that. He’s very cool.”
“I know, but—no. No, we love each other.”
“Well.” Her cell phone buzzed in her purse on the floor. She took it out and looked at the little window. “It’s him.”
“Don’t answer it.”
She smiled with a coy tilt of her head, brushed the lustrous strands of hair from the side of her face, and held the phone to her ear. “Hi.”
Shumaker went to the door and out. There didn’t seem to be any air, the sun blazing on every surface and through the pine boughs and leaves of the street, the smell of crepe myrtle so heavy that his gorge rose. He wanted to go back to before he ever knew her, wanted out of this urging of his body when she was near. It came to him in a moment of sickening clarity that spiritually she repelled him. There was nothing he liked about her. And he wanted her so much that here he was, now, standing in the heat and thickness of the summer afternoon, entertaining the idea of going through with it—giving Buddy Lessing what he desired—as long as he, Shumaker, could go on being with her.
“Fuck,” he said aloud. Then again, under his breath. “Fuck.”
She came out, dressed, her purse in both hands. “I have to go.”
“Do you want me to come back?”
He shook his head. But as she started to where she had parked, he said, “Yes.”
She stopped and turned. “The painting’s really fine.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Beautiful.”
“I’ll tell Buddy.”
“No—look. It’s not finished. I’ve still got some work to do on it.”
“I sure can’t see what.”
They were standing perhaps ten yards apart. “Well, you’ll just have to trust me. I know what I’m doing. It needs a few more touches.”
“Is that an excuse for us?”
“No,” he said flatly, certain that she wouldn’t believe him, and feeling sick again, but now not for what this was, but for the prospect of not seeing her again. Before she started on, he said, “You’re just—it’s just—gaming with you, isn’t it?”
“Funny thing to say. I loved every minute of being with you. You’re very sweet, you know. A tender lover.”
“You, too,” he told her. It was automatic, but it came from the pit of his stomach.
“So, I guess we’ll want to think about more work on the painting.” She winked.
“No, I finished it.” He nearly choked on the words.
“Well, just—let me know.” She turned and strolled toward her car, the purse draped over one shoulder.
That evening at the restaurant he went through the long minutes smiling and nodding, and seeming himself, and was surprised that he could manage it.
When he got back to the apartment he sat staring at the painting—his work. He could not go to sleep, could not concentrate. He watched TV, and drank some of the whiskey, and then had coffee, looking at the painting from every angle. He felt no sense of her as being like a drug; she was the drug, the addicting difficulty itself. He could not unthink, unsee, unremember everything that had passed between them; it all played across his mind like a mural in hell.
He stared at the painting, the depiction, and thought about how she was the fullest delineation of his most secret yearning heart. He couldn’t sleep.
At dawn, he called the number. No answer. He took a long walk, down to Otherlands, and sat watching happy people talking and laughing and eating. The day was already too warm. He ordered a black coffee and granola, but finished neither. Twice more he tried to call. Nothing. Back at the apartment, he brought out another primed canvas, and started to paint. He had no idea of anything, but was simply making strokes with the brush, in the array of colors. An exercise in manipulating the shades of light and shapes of color, and very quickly it ended, ran out, like a strand of thought. He put it aside. And got another frame and started something else. There was the show to think about.
He spent the day working, sketches, arrangements of lines and light—he had always preferred portraits, and occasionally scenes, busy and bright and full of mottled sun and shade as Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. But these were simply different gradations of form and tint, abstract and pointless, too. All that day he kept trying to call her, and all that day he got nothing but the steady rattle of the ring on the other end.
He called in sick at the restaurant.
On Monday the restaurant was closed, and he spent the whole of the day painting, eating little, drinking small half shots from the bottle of whiskey. He wasn’t tasting it. It was merely to calm himself, get his hands steady. Now and then he gazed at Alexa in her square of canvas, that faultless shape, the lush watery blue of the eyes, the voluptuousness of the mouth, the immaculate lines of the neck and shoulders and breasts, the little blond triangle, the creamy skin.
Tuesday morning the man in the Memphis Redbirds cap came to collect the painting. He held out a check for a thousand dollars.
“It’s supposed to be fifteen hundred,” Shumaker said. “And it’s still not finished.”
“Right. This is for the painting in its unfinished state.”
“I can’t let it go for that.”
“Mr. Lessing thought you might feel that way. I’m authorized to give you another hundred. But I’m leaving here this morning with the painting.” The look in the deep-socketed eyes, under the bill of the cap, was determined and unfriendly, and calmly fierce.
Shumaker stepped back from the door and let him enter. There wasn’t anything else to do. It would be useless to get beat up for it. They walked over and stood looking at the painting. “Jesus. What do you call it?”
“I don’t have any name for it. Her name.”
“She sure is a looker.”
Shumaker was silent.
“You got something to put it in?”
When it was safely crated and put away in the backseat of the car, the man tipped the cap and said, “Do you want that other hundred?”
Shumaker took it. “Will you see Mr. Lessing’s wife today?”
The other smiled. “They’re off somewhere overseas again. They left yesterday.”
He watched the man drive away, then went back into the apartment and drank some more of the whiskey. His heart hurt—a slow, pulsing, heavy stone in the middle of his chest. He couldn’t breathe out fully. There was the rest of the day to do, and he lacked the strength to draw air into his lungs. He thought of dying. Every motion took an effort.
At last, he drove to his parents’ house and went in. No one was home. He was home. He walked from room to room, and for a time he sat in front of the television. He even slept a little. He had an unpleasant dream, not quite at the level of nightmare: Some form of string or cord that he had swallowed somehow and could not remove from his mouth and in the dream he kept pulling on it and watching it pile up at his feet. Awakening from this, he stood and looked around himself and felt vaguely sick. He was moving groggily through the foyer on his way out when his father arrived from an afternoon meeting. “What brings you here?”
“I don’t know. Just felt like it.”
“Where’s your girl?”
“She’s not a girl, Dad.”
“You know what I meant. Don’t be so damn particular.”
“She’s gone. Sonya’s gone, too. They’re both gone.”
“You all right?”
The professor watched him for a few moments. “Did you finish the painting?”
“It’s—there’s some things I wanted to do with it. But a guy came and took it away.”
They were silent, neither of them moving.
“Would like to’ve seen it.”
“It’s a good painting,” Shumaker said. “Anyway.”
“Maybe old man Lessing’ll want to show it off somewhere.”
There was a pause.
“I’m sure it is good, son.”
“They’re married now, Dad. They got married overseas.”
“The captain of a ship they were on.”
After a brief pause, the professor said, “Jesus Christ.”
They were still standing in the hall when Lena arrived. She had two bags of groceries. “Well,” she said. “You two. Want to lend me a hand, here?”
They took the bags from her and went into the kitchen. There was a half-eaten apple on the counter, and some slices of mango on the cutting board, where she had been preparing something. “Are you staying?” she asked, taking the groceries out of the bag and putting them away—milk, bread, mixed greens, broccoli. The paper bags rattled. The refrigerator door made its little sucking sound when she opened it. Everything was itself; it all made him eerily dizzy. He thought of the concussion.
“You okay?” his father asked.
“Gotta go to work at the restaurant.”
“You don’t look okay,” Lena said. “Somebody let me in on it, please.”
“Both girls—uh, both women are apparently gone.”
“Well, I know the one is. I saw a piece in the Appeal this morning about Buddy Lessing being in the Loire Valley for the summer with his new wife.”
“I’ve gotta go,” Shumaker said.
“Stay for dinner,” said his mother.
He walked over and kissed her cheek, then patted his father’s shoulder, and made his way out. He drove to the restaurant and spent his work time concentrating on being polite and thorough, doing what was required, being good. He even thought of it that way. It was as if there were something he had to mollify, something in the surrounding air. At the end of the night he drove to the apartment and let himself in. There wasn’t much to eat. He made a peanut-butter sandwich and sat eating it without much pleasure, drinking more of the whiskey. Half a cocktail glass of it this time. He looked at all the paintings he had begun and abandoned. It was difficult to imagine where he might go, or how it would be if he got past this empty feeling. Finally he tried to sleep, and couldn’t. The hours of the night stretched before him like a vast expanse across which he had to pass, inch by inch, nothing changing, the light not coming, the clock hands still as painted ones.
When he noticed the sunlight pouring in through the window in the door, he realized that he must have drifted a little.
And there, in the window of the door, was Sonya.
He nearly ducked away. She just stood there looking at him through the glass. Finally he moved to the door and opened it.
“Hi,” she said.
He stepped out and closed the door behind him, feeling that he must not let her see the painting—before he remembered that the painting was no longer there. He could not return her gaze. “How’ve you been?” he asked, and was appalled at the absurdity of the question.
“How do you think I’ve been?”
“Sorry.” This seemed absurd, too.
“You look bad. Is it the—the injury?”
“Didn’t sleep too well. Not the injury—no.”
She appeared to gather herself, took a breath. “Well, I’m here because my mother insists I do it before I go home.”
“You’re—” Suddenly he didn’t want to lose her, and he almost blurted it out. He saw the intricate green of her irises, the clear sparkle of them in the early morning light, and his mind seemed to buckle. Everything was roiling inside him, and she stood there not seeing it. “Back to L.A.?”
“You’ve guessed it,” she said, with a fleeting smile.
In the long silence that followed, a bird repeated a two-note song three times: pee-wit, pee-wit, pee-wit. When abruptly she moved toward him, he started to recoil, and there was a pause, a moment of shared embarrassment, of being unpleasantly reminded of the reason for such a reaction. She kissed his cheek lightly and stood back. “I’m—I’m really sorry for hitting you—for hurting—injuring you. I apologize—there.”
“No need,” he got out, and then wanted to say more. Except that he had no words.
“But—well, you never should’ve waited to tell me like that.”
“No, I know.” He wanted to tell her that it had been his father’s advice and insistence. After all, the professor and she had been friendly before Shumaker ever knew her. He thought of Memphis in May.
“That hurt me—very badly.”
“I’m so sorry. I know.”
“Well, of course that wasn’t the real hurt.”
“I’m sorry for all of it. Everything. I can’t tell you.”
“The real hurt was that you—that we—”
“I understand. I know.” The words were rushed and full of a tone of avoidance now. Hearing himself, he wanted to reach over and take her hand. “I didn’t mean—I—I never—”
Her expression grew dreamy. “I was so happy coming back—so happy.” Her eyes welled up. “Do you remember when I came out of the mist—” She sniffled, wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “Well, that’s silly.”
“And we—we sat in the car and put those stories on the people going by—”
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, I know. Yes.”
“Please,” he began. “I wish none of this—I wish it hadn’t—”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, you know, me too. Anyway, I’m sorry I hit you.” Abruptly she strode toward the car.
“I didn’t mean us,” he called after her.
She stopped and turned. “That’s good to know.”
“I wish things were different.”
She gazed at him. And, in silence, he had a kind of premonitory rush of knowing that no matter where he would travel or who he would come to know in his life, or what he would come to do, he would always carry the regret for this. He thought of the painting and wished it destroyed. He had gotten so much of everything wrong.
“Sonya,” he said. “I’m stupid. I was so stupid. I—I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what happened to me.”
She nodded, sighing, as if agreeing to something quite simple concerning them both. “You got hit over the head.”
Crying silently, watching her go, he gathered his breath and called, “Come back? Please?”
Again she stopped and faced him. “Can’t,” she sobbed, her lips trembling, tears streaming down her face. “Just—can’t. It’s all—all gone now. Our marvelous love.” She went to the car, hurrying a little, as if fearing that her strength would not carry her far enough. Getting in, with a little struggle, and without looking back at him, she pulled the door shut and started the engine, which chugged and seemed about to stall, but then caught, and roared. She put both hands on the wheel, a tight grip, and drove out of his life forever.