H. R. Burroughs-Weston stroked toast crumbs from the counter with the side of his mit into his open left hand. They stuck, beige gravel on the shining black plasticene. He wiped them off, tossing them onto the tiny sill outside the open window. The paint had peeled from the wood in roundish patches, been painted over, peeled and been repainted. It was beginning to blister again. He resented it, resented the paint for peeling, the maintenance people for letting it.
It was cold out, but the beige-painted radiator belted out heat so passionately the windows had to be cracked throughout the building or the occupants would swelter. Only the aperture itself, gushing cold air, and a few feet surrounding it, was comfortable. The rest was hell.
Almost December, for the love of god. December. Anno Domine 1965. Another year gone. He sighed. Fluffy demitasse-sized birds nestled together on an insubstantial black twig outside his window. They would come and peck at the crumbs by and by. He wouldn't see them. But the crumbs would be gone.
Ach, du leiber Augustine, alles wei, wei, wei.
Oh, my darling Augustine, all is gone, gone, gone.
He pulled the jelly jar from the refrigerator, held it down with the mit and turned it with his other hand. He spread it on the toast, stacking it neatly, one piece on top of the other, jellied sides together, and put the jar back in the little cabinet in refrigerator door. A mad world, and he was matching pieces of toast perfectly. He took the plate to the tiny table with its one chair near the window and sat down, napkin in his lap. He stared at the plate. Eat.
He sighed, and glanced up at the toaster on the counter. His own face appeared reflected in it, only slightly distorted in its nearly straight, brilliant sides.
Behold the man.
So said Pilate when they had taken Christ, tortured and ridiculed him.
He pushed the plate away, sickened. Where was the man? Here. At a tiny table in a small apartment in a brickfronted building like all the other brickfronted buildings on Washington Avenue. City sounds barged into the apartment through the windy aperture. Angry sounds. Horns honking. Impatient, angry Americans. Sirens, harbingers of dread deeds, of fire, injury, acts of malfeasance. No siren ever announced good news.
What was the man? Fifty-four years old, and hardly a man at all. He coughed a little, his persistent, nasty little cough. Perhaps it would provide egress for him, in the long run, if he ignored it long enough. He picked up the top piece of toast. Turning it over, he stared at the glistening butter, then dropped it on top of the other. Rising, he leaned against the window jamb and stared out into the grey morning. Skeletal trees against concrete. The trees whose top branches provided roosts for crumb-hungry birds, box elders, were rooted in the space between the sidewalk and the street. Across the street, there was no across the street. At one time, Washington Avenue had been the crest of a rolling hill. The highway department had torn away everything on the other side of the street, graded fifteen to twenty-five feet to the level of the valley alongside it and built a four lane innerbelt to carry traffic around the city.
It was hard to understand Americans. Spared the bombing in Europe and Asia, Americans affected the same result through urban renewal. It was no good to have Europe rebuilt along monumental lines. They wanted it too, and swept all the buildings from the riverfront, the old French warehouses and churches and homes, leaving only the old Cathedral standing like a single tooth in an old man's mouth. Amidst a bare and barren landscape they raised a 630-foot arch on the waterfront, a colossus. After some engineering difficulties, the last eight-foot section slipped into place. He stayed home on that historic day, resolved never to take the long elevator ride to the top of the monstrosity to look out over a long and mist-devoured landscape. It was not so tall that he could see either his home or heaven. What was the point?
They were throwing a new bridge across the Mississippi, an orthotopic bridge with steel plates that served both as roadway deck and top flange of the main girders. It soared out over the river without the flying buttresses of steel girder bridges. It was the last link in the national Civil Defense network of highways designed to mobilize the country quickly in the event of attack.
They cleared several square blocks of the brick and wood city to build a giant sports arena, 55,000 seats, named for a German beer magnate. Other areas had been cleared for still more massive projects, buildings up to 28-stories, great housing projects for the poor in the Great Society, but it still looked like the aftermath of an air raid.
Bombs. Americans were, are, good at bombs.
We were good at bombs, too. But we knew what to hit.
He picked up his straight cut black cloth coat from the back of the straightbacked chair and threw it around his shoulder, slipping his left arm in. The right one wouldn't fit. The mit was too bulky. He draped his thick grey-plaid scarf around his neck. It came down with the tag up. Zephyr, the warm west wind. Who now remembered who Zephyr was?
He left the apartment, closed and carefully locked the door, slipped the key into his left pocket. He had been right handed. He still reflexively reached for things with the mitted hand, still felt sensation, pain even, from time to time. It was somewhere, still in Germany, the small and broken bones of a once radiant young man, bones commingled with the bones of so many others, such greater bones as legs and hips of other radiant young men who would never walk or see or even weep. They left their bones, their flesh, like that of Homeric heroes, for the birds and beasts. Where is great and aged Priam, loaded with treasure, to beg my hand back of swiftfooted godlike Achilles? Did they see themselves as blameless, purehearted Achilleses, these soldiers? Blameless in their wanton destruction of that which had taken easily a thousand years to perfect? Cathedrals, art, palaces. The great losses. Homes. Families. His. He sighed again, looked up at the lowering sky and squeezed his eyes shut against the rising heat in them.
Stop it. It was twenty years ago.
Twenty years is nothing. The twinkling of an eye.
There was little traffic on the street. He walked, his umbrella over his right arm, the picture of an exiled English gentleman. He would go home someday, he always thought. But there was no home anymore. They had bulldozed what remained of his home, buried the remains of those who had been killed when the building collapsed on their heads in a night bombing. They lay under small, government-issued markers. Mother, wife, sons and daughter. He had taken the single photo he had carried on his person of them, wrapped it in a piece of paper and put it back in the wallet. He could not bear to part with it, but it sickened him to see it. He could not speak their names, had not spoken their names in years. His wife, he could think of in vague general terms, but he stayed far from anything that might bring a real memory to the surface. The children, he refused to consider.
He came to the crossing that led to the bridge that arched up, spanning the great new innerbelt, and looked for traffic. One day, he resolved, he would merely forget to check and then, at last, he would be at peace.
A green Volkswagen passed with its young occupants. He scoffed and tightened the soft scarf around his neck. Volkswagen. Wagon of the people. The German people. How quickly things change. They'd beat the Germans during the late war, the fathers of these youngsters, disgraced them and now their children drive their cars.
Fashions change quickly. A few years ago every woman was decked out in a pill box hat, today, no one. Enemies have to be switched from time to time, like hats. There were new enemies now, harder, perhaps to understand than Germans and Italians. Southeast Asians were odd. Racially mixed, mulattoes, with the darker populations from further south, the aboriginal negroids. Not even the Asians consider them real Asians. The rising anti-war talk wasn't about saving Vietnamese. It was about Americans who didn't want to be bothered saving Vietnamese. He strode out into the crosswalk, between the two neatly painted white lines. Stay between the lines.
He could already hear the bluejays scolding from the tops of the high trees as he entered the park. He followed the familiar path through the park to the museum, past a pair of lovers on a dark green slatted bench, her bouffanted head on his tweed-jacketed shoulder, past a loose but tagged dog chasing a squirrel.
How many times had he been there since he had been buried in the midwest? It wasn't like the museums at home. But it wasn't bad, either, for something in the middle of nowhere. In front, facing away from the museum, there was a great bronze figure of Louis IX set high on a huge pedestal. He was astride a muscular charger, noble, fierce, fearless. Louis had brought back pieces of the True Cross and the chalice of the Last Supper from the Holy Land thereby ensuring himself a place the pantheon of saints. He was a crusader, a defender of the faith, a warrior.
I was a warrior once.
He closed his eyes and for a moment remembered the first time he came home in his uniform, bronze from months in the desert. His mother's hands, always cold, like a refreshing drink of water on a hot summer afternoon, pressed against his face with laughing delight and then ran across his tightly jacketed shoulders and chest. "You handsome thing!" she said, her voice hinting at the delicious wickedness of his perfection.
"You like it?"
"I like it. I sent away a boy, and they send me back a man." She glowed, and made a quick circular bird-like motion with her long-fingered hand. "Here, let me see."
He turned with a flourish. "Yes," she said. "I approve."
"Is she here?" he said, almost conspiratorially.
"Yes. Go on. She's in the parlor."
He went in and before he could even find her amidst the chintz and flowers, she had let loose a delighted, relieved squeal and was instantly in his arms. He hesitated to kiss her, unsure, not of her, or even himself, but of the surroundings, his mother, his uncle. But she offered her upturned mouth, eyes closed and he pressed his face downward against hers. When his arms closed tight around her, she seemed somehow smaller. Surely he couldn't have grown in the months they had been apart. She yielded, opening her lips the way she opened her legs when his weight touched her hipbones. His breath caught, and he found himself deeper in the kiss, her soft lips inside his own. He gasped, pulled back.
"Yes," she breathed. "When?"
"How long are you here?"
"Only a few days."
"Yes. Whatever you say. Whenever you say."
He came slowly up the steps and pulled on the bronze handle of the door. A strange combination of warmth and cold met him and the now-familiar and always welcome scent. Of all the places in this city, this one was closest to home.
There was a central room, high ceilinged, cavelike. A youngster laughed, and he looked up as the child slipped through a distant door, the sound still reverberating sharply off the cool stone walls and through the somber space. In the center, surrounded by lush hip-tall Boston ferns was a monumental fountain in bronze, a striking naked Neptune spouting water from high atop it.
The first time he had been here, Colin Palmer-White had brought him here, only days after he'd arrived in the States. He had been nothing, a mass of nerves, and spent the first days sleeping on the couch in Colin's pecan-panelled living room. He could not bring himself to sleep in the bed they offered.
He was shocked. Colin had changed, grown a little stoop and soft, complacent, comfortable. He had been born to the rolling lawns and great houses, and now was constricted into a brick bungalow on a narrow street. But he had adjusted well to this middleclass life in middle America.
They hadn't seen each other since 1930, when they'd met in Florence for a week. Time diminished the number of letters they exchanged to nil. When the war ended, he learned Colin had come to this place. He sent frantic letter after frantic letter for months before he had a place where Colin could wire him. The first was one word, "Come." In the weeks that followed, he waited for more information, for papers, for tickets.
Collie had gone Catholic, as they used to say, and married an American. They had five children, Gretel, Madchen, Lisbeth, Adela, Hans.
"All German names?" he asked when he heard them called off in the massive granite train station downtown. "Isn't that imprudent under the circumstances?"
"We're not German," Colin had laughed, dropping his single bag into the trunk of his sedan. "Besides, here we don't hate Germans. The four girls are named for my wife's aunts. And Hans...well, I had a special reason for calling him Hans. Someone I knew long ago..."
Colin cajoled him out at last. He was still weary but not so shaken. The wife and children went to the nearby zoo, but Colin took him to the museum. They stood in front of the great fountain in silence. He felt small, contorted somehow.
"You'll be fine," Colin soothed. "You just have to find your feet. I'll take care of everything. I know where you can get a place, and I'm sure I can arrange for you to work at my school." It was a Jesuit preparatory school in the central part of the city.
"I'm not Catholic."
"Doesn't matter," he smiled reassuringly. "Cross yourself a few times, they'll never know."
"What would I do?" he asked thickly.
"I don't know. German. History. English literature." Collie laughed and squeezed his elbow. "Sorry. That's my job."
"Collie, I can't even write..." He thrust out the mit with disgust.
"You'll get used to it." There was a pause. "You need money?"
He laughed bitterly. "I need everything." Two men came up beside them, and stood quietly. He glanced at them. They were in dark uniforms. Instinctively, he moved away, his heart pounding.
"What's wrong?" Collie asked.
"You look bad."
"Come over here. Get a drink." Collie led him to the wall where there was an ornate, scallop-shelled bronze water fountain imbedded in the glistening stone. The water arced up and he put his mouth to it. It tasted of metal. He took out his neatly pressed linen handkerchief, held it under the stream to wet it and pressed it against the back of his neck.
"Yes." He drew a long breath and managed something approaching a smile.
"I took care of all the paperwork, you know," Collie said, a little eagerly.
The men had moved on. They went back and faced the fountain. For a moment, he was bathed in awe, as if he were only twelve again. The water calmly cascaded into the great bowl, it's melodic tones echoing in the cavernous room. The wishful had dropped pennies into it, and they lay at the bottom, under the shimmering water, like pockmarks on flesh, copper against bronze. Slowly, his eyes came out of the bowl, up the light-spotted water to the figure of Neptune, torqued, powerful. It was not a beautiful man, this Neptune, not even regal, but it was a man, middle-aged, muscular in a lumpish way, not smooth like David or a young Bacchus. He stared at the figure for a long time, absorbing it. When he turned Collie was watching him intently, that same familiar quasi-smile on his still-perfect porcelain face. Damn him. He'd fled England before the bombs started dropping. He only knew the terror, the pain, second-hand.
But now Collie was dead, too. Not a bomb, at least not an external one. C. An explosion of cells in his own body. Ate him alive, a year ago this past October. He rarely saw the wife now, or the children. She married an accountant, an American of course, and moved to Chesterfield. The schools, she said, were better.
Qua olim Abraham promisisti.
He needed something now. He needed something. He had so much nothing. Cole Porter wrote a song like that, or maybe it was Gershwin. It didn't matter. American musical twits. They had only listened to jazz when they were drinking, in the clubs, and then only in the early years. He made his way through one room, and then the next. They had some good artifacts, exquisite Egyptian pieces, Central American. Indian. Two teenaged boys, one darker, his hands stuck in the back pockets of his rolled-cuffed jeans, stared at a coyly posed melon-breasted goddess. Their voices were low enough, but one said something to the other and the second laughed, a surprised snorting laugh that doubled the other over, snickering. He glared at them and passed through the antiquities galleries into the European collection.
In the third room, after the lithos and English landscapes, he caught up with a tour. They filed in quietly through the opposite door, about fifteen people, led by a too-thin young man with a prominent forehead wearing a straight cut dark suit. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the ducklings were following. An overweight woman, drenched in perfume and swathed in a purple cloth coat snapped her alligator handbag open. Conflicting perfume plumed out as she pulled a lace-lined hanky from the bag. Her husband fussed at her to hurry. "We're going to miss the Matisse," he hissed.
"You can't miss it, it's right there," she argued.
"We'll miss what he says about it..."
"You go," she grumbled, jowls wobbling. "I have something in my eye." She stood apart, daubing at the corner of it. Mascara splotched the white linen.
The thin young man gestured inclusively and everyone clustered around the two Matisse, the Interior at Nice and Bathers with Turtle. "Henri Matisse was born in 1869 and died only six years ago, in 1959," the young man began. "He brought to his work a colorful, rhythmic, posterlike quality." How many times had the guide said these same words, with the same, enthusiastic inflection, as if they were rolling off his tongue for the first time?
He drifted nearer the group, moving his umbrella from one arm to the other so that it wouldn't jostle those nearby. A young woman in an A-line dress noticed his approach and moved reciprocally. She smiled, her pink lips flashing perfect orthodonture. He returned a wan version of her brightness. Her dress was printed with misshapen Picassoan horses on a background of brilliant red and blue interlocking squares. The design hid anything of interest about her shape, and he found himself staring down the line of it without meaning to, looking for breasts, waist, hips. Legs she had, and too much of them, and knees. A pretty enough face. He thought for a moment of her face. It was always the standard by which he would value all other faces. There was never anyone else. There never could be. She was perfection in womanhood. None of these A-line dresses for her. He turned back toward the tour guide.
"Matisse was one of the leaders of a group of exciting young, radical painters," the guide said enthusiastically, knitting his fingers together in a pseudo-intellectual way. "They were called 'fauves', 'wild beasts' by the critics, because their painting seemed outrageous and savage to the establishment."
He snorted a little. That phenomena had bred generations of artists and musicians who thought that just because Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had caused rioting in Paris, or that the critics panned the works of some of the artists now highly revered, being panned was equivalent to being a Stravinsky or Renoir.
"I know," the guide smirked sympathetically as his audience clucked and sputtered softly. "A picture of three bathers looking at a turtle on a beach hardly seems radical. But Matisse was a rebel, an escapee from the school of William Bouguereau, who painted nude after nude in artificial settings. Matisse found Buogereau's overt, well, preoccupation with the naked bodies of young women to be scandalous." The purple-coated woman covered her face with her hanky and shook her head, blowing loudly into the cloth. "Matisse wanted to create a simpler kind of art, 'armchair art' he called it, for everyone."
There were murmurs of approval. Americans liked the idea of "everyone". He felt the pounding in his chest become irregular. Bougereau said Matisse could never be a painter, he didn't even know how to hold a pencil. They got him back. Bougereau had no pictures on display in these modern galleries, no mention in art books or encyclopedias. He was obscene, they said. But they lived obscene. He merely painted nudes, and painted them exultantly. The new artists were promoted on the basis of their contacts, their friendships with gallery owners, not on the merits of their work. When the public scoffed at them, they still might eat from the hands of their friends. And when their meager efforts were, through their close associations with critics, lionized, every fool who could heft a paintbrush thought he, too, was great.
The young man smiled broadly and passed on to the next pieces. He turned and went into the next room.
Monet, pleasant enough. He went into the Dutch and German room. Hans Holbein, Lady Guldeford. Tempera. Exquisite. It shone. Perfect modelling. Flawlessly finished. There were some breathtaking Dutch winterscapes. Still, after all these years, it effected him, caught his breath and took it away. It was all still German art. Holland was only a subsidiary country. It was German, and the Austrians were basically German, as well. Holbein was indisputably German. The genius distilled to an almost indigestible richness.
Colin Palmer-White lay on the floral carpet beside him. This was the first term in which they'd shared a room, though they had wanted to for the previous three. It just never worked out. He closed his eyes and exhaled a long stream of cigar smoke. Collie had brought them back from Christmas break, pinched from his inattentive but sophisticated father, along with a bottle of exquisite sherry. They drank it from teacups, since Collie hadn't bothered to pinch the right glasses.
He opened his eyes and glanced at the other boy. He was staring at the coffered ceiling, a dreamy look on his porcelain face, ivory teeth only barely exposed between his slightly open lips. He was a Leonardo angel, the one who points to the Child in the later version of the Madonna of the Rocks, all curls and softness and a smoothness of skin, lilting smile and laughing eyes. Not so. The curls were only hinted at, since his Collie's was cut in the standard regulation schoolboy style. But he was an angel nonetheless.
They had already listened to borrowed Wagner and Mozart on his victrola that afternoon, and were winding up Mahler. The last notes faded and the needle slipped into the final groove, swooshing softly back and forth from the end of the piece to the little hole in the middle of the record and back again. One day maybe they'd learn to fit more than ten minutes of music on a side.
Neither of them moved. He blinked and took Colin in again. His bird-bone fingers were arched up, fingertips resting on his breastbone, wrists high. Colin's elbow, on the sun-dappled carpet, barely touched the other boy's arm, but it was enough to connect them through nerve and bone and muscle and skin.
"Tell me, Spootie..." Colin began meditatively.
How had he gotten a nickname like Spootie?
"Why is it that only the Germans can write music?" Colin moved his birdboned hand and threw it up onto his own forehead, fingers up. The paleness of his skin contrasted with the dark panelling on the walls, and the dark breakfront that held their books and drawings and papers.
He snorted and drew again from the cigar. Curling up, he rolled the ashes from the burning end along the inside edge of a teacup set on the beautifully bound albums of music.
His mouth tasted nasty, like burned paper and leaves. He rather liked it. It made him feel manly in a grim, jaw-jutted way. "Or cook?" he said, a little mischievously, rolling back and intentionally thrusting his hip out to jostle the other boy. Puppy-like, Colin pushed him away. "Alright. Why is it that only the Germans can compose music and cook?"
"And the English can't," he teased.
"Alright," Colin rolled up on his hip and rested his head on his upturned hand. "Alright. And the English can't." Colin reached over and ran his hand along the other's jawline. Everything was German with them. They ate German food, drank German liquor when they could get it, listened to German music, read German philosophy and poetry, ate off Dresden china, sang German hymns in chapel. Colin's eyes were big, deep, pale grey. He was waiting for an answer.
"I don't know." He suddenly felt empty, but not unhappy. Strangely pure.
Colin laid back down again. He sighed. "We'll always be friends, won't we?" he asked.
"Good." The needle was still swooshing.
The Italians and Spanish were lumped together in one room, in the farthest corner of the building. This was discernible only from the map in the guidebook, of course. There were no windows.
There was a long narrow chiaroscuro piece, Francisco de Zubaran's St. Francis. Light fell across the saint's legs as his robe receded into darkness. It was powerful, moody, somber, deliciously off-putting.
He turned, looked up. A crucifixion. It took him by surprise, gripped him in the chest before he had really had time to take it all in. For a moment, there was no one else, nothing else in the gallery. This was no staid, polite crucifixion like the others. It was turbulent. A wind might have swept through and thrown the bodies up onto logs in this desolate mountainous landscape. He had never seen log crosses before, though he did once see a depiction of Christ on a tree that still had leaves. The crosses were scattered, asymmetrically, on a wild and rocky hill surrounded by a vista of other crags viewed across dusky space. He peered at the little brass nameplate to the left of the yard-square painting. Venetian. Eighteenth century. Tiepolo. Either the father, Giordani, in his old age, or the son, Dominico, in his youth. It mattered little.
It was a violent painting, violent in the story it told, violent even in the brushwork. The motion of the painting was from the viewer's left quickly to the center, then up and around in a swirl that encompassed the three crucified men, and back down and out the right hand side. A great tornado of motion.
Christ. He came to Christ last. His eyes brimmed with sudden, hot tears. Nailed to a cross he had been compelled to bear. If he struggled, the metal would tear his flesh. If he didn't struggle, writhing pain would consume him, one member at a time until the whole of him was engulfed. Christ's own body had been made part of the very torture inflicted on him and Christ had to cooperate. He closed his eyes. He had lived this painting. Lived this agony.
The immaculate air of the gallery refused to enter his body. He turned quickly and hurried through the rest of the rooms without noticing what he passed. He had to get away from the brightness, cover himself in the dimming light of the coming night. He needed the slap of cold air to bring him back to reality. He hurried down the great broad steps of the temple-like facade, and looked to the west. The cold air reached around his neck, comforting, soothing him. Only a thin band of deep magenta provided any color to the otherwise drab land- and skyscape. There were buildings along the western boulevard that caused the magenta line to be broken all along the way, but it was still there, behind them. He pulled his coat nearer, drew a deep breath, and pushed the painting from his mind.
He walked home, calmer. The wind picked up, swirling leaves upward in a circular motion like the crucified figures in the Tiepolo. He pulled his collar up. One day, he would count the steps between the museum and his apartment to keep thoughts from coming. He heard sirens downtown, coming closer, several vehicles, but when he looked eastward, he saw flashing lights turning off to the south.
Someone else on their cross.
He walked past the church, a pretty squat little thing, red brick with stained glass glowing in the early evening darkness. Brilliant reds and yellows, jewel-like blues and greens, combined with firm black lead to render St. John baptizing Jesus with a covey of angels hovering overhead. Germans who came to this city after 1848 had done well. They had two stained-glass manufactories here, and the city was studded with their exquisite works. Germans were big in this place. They had a neighborhood all to themselves, full of restaurants, one even shaped like a windmill, Dutch, not Deutsche. There were beer gardens and accordion players, and festivals with dancing. He had never gone.
He stood and watched the glow from the window, straining to hear the voices of a choir or the sonorous tones of an organ. But there were none. When he turned back to the street, it had begun to mist, forming soft wide haloes around the short streetlamps. Parts of the city now had tall lights, florescent-looking ones, that glowed an eerie yellow, like the sulphur yellow that hung over the city on summer mornings. But not here. Not yet. There were still short, intimate lights that made small bright pools on the darkening, wet sidewalk. He glanced at the door of the community room where the parishioners had their meetings. There was a familiar yellow sign with three triangles in a circle. Air raid shelter.
Bombs. Americans got pretty good at bombs. If a list was made of all the peoples and places they had bombed it would read like an atlas. All over the world. Germany, France, Japan. So many bombs, and finally such efficient bombs that only one man was necessary to kill thousands upon thousands of people.
America got what she wanted in the shortrun, but she paid a price. Ten years ago he started seeing ads for at-home bomb shelters. People stockpiled canned goods, bottles of water, first aid kits. These people had never spent a day of the last war, or a night, in a bomb shelter. They knew nothing, and yet, they lived in mortal terror. They drilled their children at school to duck and cover against possible air raids. He smiled bitterly. No amount of ducking and covering could have kept the building off his children. It was a chimera, a way to make the people think they were safe. But they lived in terror, afraid one day they would meet people as destructive as themselves. They kept close watch on the Russians.
Russians. They were in the camp. The English were treated best of all, though there were incidents from time to time. The few Italians were treated fairly well. The Russians suffered. Anyone who wouldn't obey suffered, but the Russians worst of all. What did it matter? They all suffered in the end. The last years, his years at the camp, were the worst. The separation from his loved ones was grievous, and what he saw day in and day out was wearying. Eventually, he could face anything unblinking, insentient. What did it matter?
Hecuba's wheel. The wheel of fortune. Some anonymous German monk, circa 12th century, wrote a poem in which he said that one day, a man is sitting on top, king, until the wheel turns and we read 'Hecuba regina', Hecuba is queen.
He walked down the evenly paved sidewalk toward the apartment, past the line of cars parked along the eastbound lane. This was a working class neighborhood. The cars were from the late 1950s mostly, humpbacked things in dark matte colors, interspersed with little sports cars or one of the new crisp-edged brightly colored shiny coupes.
He took the stairs slowly. A man his age should be walking the fields with his dog all day, gun lightly over his flannel-clad arm, sharing the camaraderie of lifelong friends. He should come home, sprint up the stairs, drop a brace of pheasants on the floor and take his laughing wife in a loving embrace.
There were sounds from the apartments he passed. Television. Always television these days. There was a new show, very well received, about life in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He had seen children in the park affecting the roles. They had no idea. This was nothing to play-act, nothing to make comedy of.
A newspaper lay on the plastic-grass welcome mat outside his neighbor's apartment. It had fallen open. Boys these days couldn't even manage to fold a newspaper right. He sighed. Small wonder, they had grown so great with ads. He read the word "Nazis Condemned" upside down, pulled up the sides of his coat, and crouched by the paper, turning his head to read the first few paragraphs. The statute of limitations for war crimes had been extended another five years. Five years. This year already six Germans, former stormtroopers, received life sentences for murders during the war. He knew all the machinations necessary to make it palpable, how they argue these were Germans killing Germans in Germany and therefore not acts of war. How could a soldier commit murder, unless he acted contrary to the orders of his commanding officer? These were not things, as it said in the Bible, quoted by the regicides of Charles I, this was not a thing done in a corner. Irrespective of their feelings, a man was compelled to do his duty or forfeit his life. Now a man who had done his duty could be compelled to forfeit his life for obeying the commands of his superiors. Taken to its logical consequence, if one was to be killed now for disobeying or suffer later for obeying, did not it eventually make for a situation in which all military service would be a matter of personal preferences with respect to what orders to obey or not? And in the end, would it not lead to the absolute necessity of taking war out of the hands of many practitioners and putting it into the hands of the very few? How, twenty years later, could acts of war be construed as civil offenses? Where would it end? Was no one safe? Would they, in the end, charge the pilot of the Enola Gay with murder? He had gone mad, they said, as perhaps only a sane man could. He rose again, moved the paper back toward the door with the toe of his shoe.
Is there a quantum theory of pain, of fear? How much worse is it to be nailed to a cross than to die in what appears to be an antiseptic, surgical-strike bombing? To die quickly at the hand of a stormtrooper, and what is quickly? or to watch oneself, one's sacred self, dwindle to nothing, and know, in the end, that nothing is waiting.
Julius Caesar, having pacified the Gauls, wrote there were towns where the women loosed their hair, their garments, threw themselves from the walls into the arms of the oncoming Romans and were spared. If a man was lucky enough, quick enough, conciliatory enough, he might be able to make a deal with another man who faced him with a bayonet. But what chance did anyone have against a machine that flies over at a hundred feet, six hundred, twenty-thousand? How is war more civilized because your enemies can be fewer and you have no personal contact with them? How could the Kellogg-Briand treaty of 1928, in which everyone agreed not to wage agressive war ever again, still be binding when administrations and circumstances changed? Wasn't it all the same as it had ever been, with the victors punishing the vanquished? If it was an act of war, it was covered by Kellogg-Briand. If it was an internal problem, it was covered under internal codes. In truth, if it was impossible to profit by the acquisition of spoils, as had been the custom since time immemorial, and if it was forbidden to personally commit acts of war against the populace, why not fly over and blow them and all their possessions to bits?
Enough of war.
He slipped the key from his pocket and fit it into the lock. When the door swung open, the heated air hit him like a physical thing.
He pulled off his coat and laid it over the back of the chair, looked at the toast, picked it up. It was the consistency of zwieback. He cracked a corner off and put it to his lips. It was too dry but he didn't have the wherewithal to heat water for tea. He put the toast back on the plate and laid down, still fully clothed, on the bed.
How long would this waiting go on, this silence?
In the morning when he awoke, his first thought was of the Tiepolo, as clearly as if it had been the face of a lover he anticipated seeing that day. The Tiepolo. Dusky blues and greys, muted tones like those that anticipate a winter storm.
Once, long ago, he had thought to be an artist, trained for a few years, but the war intervened. He had been a first rate copyist. He looked down at the mit. It was before this. But after years of practice he wrote well with his left hand, had sketched a few things. He had not, in over twenty years, attempted anything more ambitious than doodlings of a feral cat who sunned himself on the heat-reflecting galvanized metal lids of the trash bins.
He was not completely destitute. It was cold out again, but the light was brilliant, glinting on the limestone cornices, off the slate roofs and concrete surfaces. For a moment, he felt almost buoyant, as if he was going to meet that ephemeral beloved.
There was an artist's shop near the kosher market, and he made for it. It was a long walk, through neighborhoods of great old red brick houses with towers and turrets, the American's rather unique and personal view of Gothic architecture. Nothing like these neighborhoods ever existed in Europe, or still existed in what little of Europe was left. Every man had his castle here in America, or tried to. There were neighborhoods with walls and black wrought iron gates, boulevards once lined with Dutch elms now withering to nothing. In the outlying areas, they were building tract houses, and for the rich, architecturally fluid houses, A-frames that looked a like Swiss alpine lodges, or conglomerations of concrete cubes set down on one another. They could even build houses now in modules that didn't just look like cubes, they were cubes.
He was exhausted, suddenly hungry. There was little diner next to a movie theater with a marquee that blared "What's New, Pussycat?" Radios all over town, from the little ones the teenagers carried to ones built into cars to the big ones in apartments blared out the inane and whining theme constantly. They had done away with censorship. The Americans had ruled there was not a constitutional basis for censorship. It was a slippery slope from prim and proper to complete decadence.
Couldn't they see it? This was what led, in the longrun, to the need for a Nazi backlash against jazz, pornography and other moral offenses. Two recent films, "Ship of Fools" and "The Pawnbroker" were about Nazis, not sympathetic portrayals. English films. The English had all but forgotten how they had been abed with the Germans for generations. He watched a piece of paper imprinted with a fast food logo skitter across the street and affix itself to a wire fence. Garbage.
Pulling the chrome door handle, he stepped in and breathed the commingled scents of hot coffee, bacon, cigarette smoke. It was chrome paradise, shiny red leatherette booths and formica tables rimmed in gleaming corrugated chrome, red topped chrome stools. He took a seat at the counter. There was a pair of men further down the counter, talking intently. One had a three-ring binder and they were looking at papers together. They were both wearing suit coats and trousers, one a salesman in all likelihood, the slicker one. "What can I get you, honey?" the red-dyed girl snapped her gum warmly at him, pen and pad at the ready. Her eyes were rimmed with thick dark liner and her long, tightly curled lashes stood away from her eyes a full inch coated with thick mascara. "Toast," he said faintly. "And coffee. Tea if you have it."
"Coming right up," she twirled and slapped the little slip of paper up under a clip on the narrow metal piece hanging above the grill. The cook, a thin man about his age, took it down. "Toast?" he said to the girl.
"You filled out a slip for toast?" he asked incredulously.
"When there's almost nobody else in here?"
"Why don't you just turn around and say 'toast'?"
"Alright." She grinned and turned back to him, leaning over to wipe the counter. She was packed into her pink uniform, a thin gold cross hanging down on her chest. It swung out as she moved her arm with the rag. "He just thinks he's boss," she whispered cheerfully, wrinkling her nose. Another man came in, for a moment silhouetted against the sweating plateglass window. He came out of the glare, wearing a short brown plaid jacket and dark trousers. He pinched the crown of his dark brown hat and pulled it off, dropping it ceremoniously on the formica counter. He pulled a folded newspaper from under his arm and slapped it down between them.
"Hey, you," he greeted the waitress, and sat down, pulling his trousers up to free his lap.
"Hi ya, honey. What can I get for you?"
"How you want 'em?"
"Hashbrowns or grits?"
"Toast or biscuits?"
"Jelly or gravy?"
The rapid exchange screeched to a halt. "Um." The man contemplated for a moment then looked at him. He glanced down, his mind on cerulean blues and burnt ocher. "Gravy," the man pronounced cheerfully. He was probably nearing forty, graying a little on the sides, but he still had a good figure, a working man's figure, broad through the shoulders, the waist, narrow in the hips. His hands were big.
"Good," she said. The man turned back to him and grinned. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, unwrapped the top and threw the little sherd of cellophane into the dusky green metal ashtray. He deftly undid the shiny paper up to the blue tax label to make an aperture through which the cigarettes could pass. How easy. How uncomplicated these gestures were. He tapped the unwrapped part of the top against his finger and the cigarettes slid out a half inch. The man turned to him and proffered them.
"Thank you," he said, taking one from the pack with his left hand. The man noticed immediately and nodded with complete understanding. The cigarettes were the regular kind, not those new filtered ones. He tamped it on the formica countertop, put it to his lips. The man quickly tamped his, slung it into a corner of his mouth and pulled out a shiny metal lighter, flipped it open and held the towering reddish flame out toward him. He leaned forward, drew the fire into it, the smoke filling his mouth. He pulled it deep into his body.
"Thank you," he said again. "I haven't had one in a long time."
"Hm," he said.
"I can tell. Like 'Enry 'Iggins in 'My Fair Lady.'" He glowed at the girl and she simpered.
"They showed that next door," she said, topping their coffee cups. "Something like thirty-five weeks. I saw it six times."
"Yeh," the man nodded. He picked up the fluted sugar bottle and poured a long stream through the shiny metal top. It seemed like a lot. He stirred it idly. "I could tell just when you said 'Thank you' you was a foreigner. Brit, huh?"
"I lived at Brighton for a great many years."
"You English?" the girl slid a blue-rimmed, toast-crowned plate at him.
"Wow." She leaned over and looked at him with admiration. "I want to go there. It's supposed to be really neat. Do you know any royals?"
He smiled a little wanly. "Just to say hello to."
"'Just to say hello to.'" The man laughed and opened his jacket. "That's rich. Honey, you Catholic?"
"Uh huh?" She looked down and fingered the little cross.
"You know the pope?"
"Huh uh." She looked genuinely confused.
"Aw," the man said, waving his hand at her dismissively. The man turned back to him. He put his hand on his shoulder, down his bicep, drawing long on his cigarette. "I was there. In England. During the war. We saved your hides, didn't we?"
"So you did," he nodded, smiling a little. It felt uncomfortable, unfamiliar, as if his face was cold rubber. "I'm sure all English everywhere are eternally in your debt."
"Well," he laughed goodnaturedly, stroking a stray bit of tobacco from the tip of his tongue with the side of his thumb. "I didn't do it all myself, you know." He affected complete humility. "I had some help. What do you do?"
"I'm retired now."
"What did you do?"
"I taught German and eventually English literature at a boys' school not far from here."
He laughed. "Well, isn't that an irony?"
"It is, at that." He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray.
"You want jelly with that?" the girl said, pointing to the toast.
"Naw, he wants marmel-odd," the man laughed.
"You haven't got any, sweetie," he laughed again. The girl turned away, bent over and picked up a tub of silverware to put away. The man followed her pink polyester covered backside with obvious interest, then caught the older man's glance. He shook his head and rolled his eyes, sucking his breath in a delighted way. She took the tub to the sink.
He turned and attended to his toast while the man gazed fondly at the girl. He broke the top piece in half and put jelly on it. The man focused on him as he fumbled with the knife and jelly. "What, you think she's about, maybe twenty?"
"Probably." he chewed meditatively, and watched the back of the girl. She tossed her head a little, long earrings that ended in great pearlescent balls waggling against her teased hair. "What do you do?"
"I'm night supervisor at the airplane factory out by the river. Gettin' hectic over there these days. Did you know last year there were 20,000 Americans over there? Now it's 180,000. They're bombing constantly. We're working a hell of a lot of overtime. I come in here for breakfast when my shift is over. I live, well, my mother lives in a place not far from here. But I like the view."
"So I see," he said, sipping the coffee. It was wretched, bitter. It had been boiled after it had brewed. It was probably left over from yesterday. He fumbled in his pocket for change. The toast was fifteen cents, the coffee, ten. He stacked four dimes on the counter beside the saucer and stood up. "Thank you for the smoke," he said.
It was another mile to the art supply store, passed the natural history museum and the Lutheran seminary. He felt a little better with something in his stomach. The whole neighborhood began to smell of fried onions and oily baked goods from the deli. There were two women, probably a mother and her adult daughter, walking away from the deli with paper bags full of groceries. The mother was wearing a cloth scarf tied around her hair, some dark curls escaping from the blue triangle. The daughter was wearing a sheer chiffon scarf of pale green around her tall, bleached, bouffanted hair. The same thing, updated. They got into a car, the younger woman in the drivers' seat. How hings had changed.
He pulled the door of the art store open and took it all in. He hadn't been there in years, not since before Collie died. Collie had still painted, watercolors mostly, almost up until he was too ill to hold a brush. The wife had given him Collie's box and an old wooden easel after he died. Collie didn't do many easel paintings, but he had it nonetheless.
Things were slick now, packaged beautifully, plentiful. Expensive. In the old days, there were not so many choices, but the quality was excellent and their shop man would grind his own pigments so an artist could cajole him into making up a special batch of something exquisite. No one stretched their own canvases anymore either. There were cardboard canvases now, with fabric prestretched and whited already.
He nodded at the boy and girl behind the counter. The manager was walking back and forth, telephone in hand, like a dog at the end of a tether. He covered the phone with his hand. "They say three days. Can you believe it? I need it now," he said into the phone. "Not in three days. Now. You promised me, and I promised the customer...I don't care if you have to walk it here. I don't care..."
The boy had a book in his hands. He motioned to the girl. She was wearing a plaid jumper and grey socks, her hair in what they called a pageboy. She followed him into an aisle.
"Listen to this," the boy said. He looked at the canvas rolls and paint. The price was outrageous.
"Because the abstractionists produced Jackson Pollock and Willem de Koonig, a thousand hackers come to believe that to learn to draw would be an encumbrance to the free-flowing motion of their immortal souls, and that the great thing is to drop gouts of paint of a canvas from a great height."
"Who wrote this?" the girl interrupted.
"Some stuffed shirt."
"Must be. 'Americans have a tendency to believe that what is in is good, and what is good is very expensive. I am hopeful that the best of the far-out boys will soon begin to look around the world they live in, rediscover its visual fascination in honestly new terms, and simply forget about shocking the bourgeoisie. This has been the maniacal obsession of everybody from the San Francisco Ginsbergniks and the makers of 'underground' movies to the four-letter night club comics and the practitioners on the Cage piano.' What a nimrod. I like Cage, don't you?"
"Yeh. What's a nimrod?"
Their last term they had studied advanced composition. Colin came in one afternoon, in a snit. "That old bastard Foster. He told me to revise my composition. I told him Mozart composed in single drafts. He said, 'You, young man,'" Colin gestured dramatically, affecting pushing spectacles up a long nose. "'Are not Mozart.'"
He bought gridded paper, a rule, some charcoal and returned home. He would have to wait for the paints. He went into the apartment, dragged his dining chair to the single closet, climbed up on it and retrieved the wooden painting box that he had received from Collie's wife last year.
He put it on the table, in front of the open window, and snapped the clasps open. He hadn't looked in it before. It was redolent, scented like the studios they had worked in as boys, in miniature. There were tubes of paint, watercolor, mostly, but a few oils. He brushed the back of his fingers along the tubes, as one would caress fallen hair from the forehead of a beloved child.
He had found her in his paints one afternoon and scolded her, then repented of it. "Come here, and look," he said, a little brusquely, so that she didn't think he had completely forgotten his anger, or that he was as sorry for it as he was. The last years had kept him from home so much, he could afford to waste no seconds in anger. She came close and he looped his arm around her waist and reached for a tube. He opened it and squeezed a little onto the palette. "This is vermillion, made with mercuric sulphite."
"It's red," she laughed, cuddling against him.
"Not to an artist. All these are red, my sweet. But so many kinds of red."
She drew her arms up and slipped them over her head, behind his neck. "Will you teach me to paint, Papa?"
"Oh, yes," he said softly, nuzzling her cheek where the hair fell down out of her braid. "If you like."
He shook himself. Enough. She never existed. Never. He stared at the box again. There were the brushes. Collie had left a sufficient number of them, the best kind, sable. It only took a few sable hairs to make a brush, and some lucky devil had found an abandoned box, a crate of them, on a dock in New York City. It had made him a fortune, and supplied the artists of America with brushes for the last decade or so.
He picked one up, ran his fingers down the long, thin, slightly bowed shaft, plumed the sable hairs and let his finger drop away. They sprang back gently into the same perfect position. Linseed oil. Turpentine.
It would be a long, slow process.
At first, he needed only to take sketch paper and charcoal. By the end of the week, he knew this crucifixion. He would perform it, like a singer performs lieder, or a requiem, as if it were a penitential rite. He studied it, absorbed it, made preparations at home after the museum had closed, like a bride sewing her wedding dress awaits consummation. He stretched the canvas, primed it, sanded it, primed it again.
It became a daily ritual, this pilgrimage to the museum. The first day he took the painting equipment was difficult. He hadn't quite reckoned on the weight of the easel. He had to stop many times along the route, setting it down, shifting it.
He burned with self-consciousness as he set up in front of the piece, concerned they might boot him out. But the administration didn't seem to care, and the patrons were too involved in their own interests to pay much heed to him. The first time he'd been to the Louvre, they could scarcely get near the Mona Lisa for the number of copyists camped out in front of her. In an age where color photography could render a work with almost complete accuracy, why bother to painstakingly duplicate each brush stroke on canvas? No wonder they couldn't paint.
He analyzed the painting carefully, first merely standing in front of it for a long time. There was a lot to see, and the more he looked, the more he could see. There was the story, the artist's interpretation of it, the modelling of it, the colors. He watched visitors go through the gallery, glance at it and move on. It takes time, he thought. Not just thirty-seconds, like an ad on the television. Not even the minute that school tours devoted or the two or three that some art students would sacrifice. But hours, perhaps days.
The thief on the right faced away from the viewer, his arms thrown up and pulled back over the crossbar, his hand flexed in agony. He had pulled his leg up the vertical beam in his distress, like a sleepless man disarranges his bedsheets during the long pensive night. The thief's foot was suspended higher than his knee, the bonds loose, but not so loose that they might affect his ability to come down from the cross. He loosened one bond only to find the others holding fast. What does he feel after a day on the cross? Hunger? Exhaustion? Thirst? Humiliation?
But this was no photograph of a crucifixion. It was a tableau, set up piece by piece by Tiepolo in his studio. Who was this man who played the thief, a laborer from the neighborhood? A friend or fellow artist? Or like Leonardo's Christs, a favored prostitute? How long did Tiorelli play with him, positioning him this way and that until finally, he was satisfied that the man's body conveyed the proper exhausted, tormented, naked misery?
A startled white horse, it's rounded, accentuated tail end toward the viewer, bolted behind this thief's cross, his rider struggling to control him.
The thief on the left's hands were not symmetrically fixed to his cross, but haphazardly, as if the soldiers had to struggle to affix him to it. His body torques, turns so that his knees are drawn painfully, toward the right hand side of the picture. Directly below him, the Virgin Mary, swathed in mammoth grey robes like a Venetian nun falls back while the beautiful, gilded-haired St. John, bent forward in grief, lays his head against the back of her neck, while another golden haired apostle kneels beside them, leaning forward, impotent in the face of his Lord's suffering. A man in a red and yellow turban and great red mantle sits with his back to the viewer, a military drum nearby, while a host of others mill and mourn, come bearing Roman insignia and weapons. Someone is bearing away a ladder.
Everything is very Venetian, though, not Palestinian.
Not Palestine anymore. Israel. The great state of Israel.
These were Moors, not Jews, in the painting. In Venice, they were probably easier to come by.
And then Jesus. Jesus. His body turned three-quarters to the viewer, only one arm can be seen nailed to the cross. He is pale, the only bright object in the painting, even brighter than the rump of the white horse that occludes his lower legs and feet. His face is down, turned partly away, the jaw tight. He is no passive suffering lamb who takes this pain in stride, no feminine-faced sweet Jesus. There is a tension in the part of his arm from the elbow to the shoulder, wearying to look at, painful to imagine.
We are all nailed to the cross in the end, pierced through. Even the bravest are grim in the face of it. You had your nails, Christ. I have mine.
He never knew what happened. He was informed, by letter, that they were all dead. For months, he harbored a gnawing need to go home, to seek out anyone who might know anything, to see the ruin, to get the details, how each of their lives ended. But it was only the details he was missing. They were dead. All of them, and he was left alone and alive, held down against the raw and splintering wood of the cross, as if the soldiers were at his hands and feet, their knees holding him down, driving the squared iron nails through his flesh with heavy mallets. One at a time. He would paint it. It would go into his body through his eyes, and come out his hand, purging him of the filth, of the poison of the years.
Like Christ carrying his cross, he carried the easel, paintbox, canvas down the steps to the street, over the bridge and through the park. He could have made it simpler, lighter, easier. There were new easels on the market, aluminum things that could be broken into pieces that fit in a fairly small case. But he couldn't.
How far was it from the Praetorium to Calvary? He went to the library and found a map of ancient Jerusalem. Three hundred fifty yards. Maybe four hundred paces. A thousand yards if he had to go from the Temple to Calvary. Twelve hundred paces, perhaps. He could count them off now. From the front steps of the apartment to the front of the museum.
He grew used to the weight, day by day, to the bulk. Could he, in the winter of his discontent, have grown stronger, more able to shoulder his cross? Was it possible that somehow, by this process, he could come down from his cross? And yet. And yet. He was still there, still pinned to it.
Ascension Sunday 1966
He wiped the brush with the stained cloth and glanced at his own painting, then at the original on the wall. There was something off about the color of the thief on the right's hand. The positioning and shape was identical to that of the original. But the color. There was something wrong with it.
There was a small noise behind him and he turned. There were always people milling about, coming in while he was working. It was, after all, a public place. Some wanted to talk. Others just stared, as if he was one of the exhibits.
He turned toward the newcomer. It was a small girl, no more than seven years old, in her Sunday best, a little round white painted straw hat and lace topped white gloves, a short-sleeved flowered frock with crinoline skirts and white shoes. She was looking from his painting to the one on the wall and back intently. He stood aside, dropped the palate a little, letting it rest against the outward curve of his hip and watched her. Finally, she looked up and smiled. He smiled back without meaning to.
"I want to be an artist when I grow up," she said, her voice conveying nothing short of rapture.
"Do you?" he asked softly.
"Yes. How did you get to be so good?"
"Practice. Copying and practicing. But I'm not good," he corrected her gently. "I could never do anything this splendid on my own. I can only copy other men's works of genius."
"Oh, it's wonderful." Her voice was soft, her toes pointed in slightly. "What you've done." Her hair was almost black and fell in a soft waves just below her ears. Probably her mother had tried to curl it, but the curls had fallen out. Her eyes were large, dark, glistening.
He motioned a little with his elbow, cocked his head and she came forward shyly. "Do you come here much? Do you know this painting?" he asked.
"I've seen it a few times before. It's sad."
He looked at it with new eyes. "Yes," he said. "I suppose it is."
She was looking at his box of paints. "Are these all the colors you have? How do you make so many colors on the board? How do you know which one to use?"
"I have to mix them carefully. It's called a canvas."
"The board I'm painting on. It's cloth."
"Stretched tight over a wooden frame and coated with ground lime mixed with titanium white."
"What if you run out?"
He smiled. Her eyes were fixed on the paints again, on the box. "I make more," he said softly.
"You don't sound like other people when you talk," she observed. It wasn't impolite, just curious.
"Oh? Can you not understand me?"
"Oh," she blushed and looked at the ground. "I'm sorry. I just meant...it's nice."
"Do you think so?" He smiled a little. His own daughter, his Elise. She was about this age. Now she would be twenty-six, probably married, probably children of her own. "That's kind of you to say." He looked back at the painting.
"May I watch you?"
He looked down at her upturned face, pale, with just a flush of pink on the cheeks, a little dappling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She would be a beautiful woman, barring accident and war and pestilence, poverty, misery.
"Yes, of course." He raised the long brush again and daubed a little paint on the thief's upraised arm. "Are you here alone?" Surely not. Who would leave a child her age alone in a city museum?
"My parents are here. And my sister. She's four years older than me and mean."
He laughed a little. "Is she?"
"Yes. How did you do this? Did you make it all yourself or is it a kit, like a paint-by-number?"
"It isn't paint-by-number," he answered, again softly. She was a small thing, fragile-looking, but somehow forthright. One doesn't speak loudly to a soft-petalled flower. "I took paper with a grid on it, and drew every square as carefully as possible. Look," he put his brush between his teeth and sorted through the sheaf of papers in the open lid until he found the worksheet. He opened it and laid it on top of the box and took the brush from his teeth. "It's called a cartoon."
"Yes. A cartoon, a drawing."
She reached a timid hand out toward it, mesmerized. Something very nearly human welled up inside him, and he was stunned by its force. "It's beautiful," she said.
"Then I transferred it, square by square onto the canvas. Look," he motioned her closer and pointed to the yet unpainted part. "You see the light lines? I put those in with conte."
"A kind of pencil, made from clay. Here. Look." He took one from the box and showed it to her. She reached between his hands as if to touch it.
"What's your name?" he asked softly.
"Chloe. But I'm not supposed to talk to strangers. Are you a stranger?"
He wilted a little. "It's a good idea not to talk to strangers, I suppose. Am I a stranger?"
"I don't think so," she said. "You're an artist. You belong here."
"Yes," he said quietly.
"What's your name?"
"Hans. Hans Reichert. I'm German." He felt as if he had been carrying a heavy box for a long time, and when he put it down, his arms felt light, as if they were filled with helium. He spoke softly, quickly. He had to say it. It was the last of the nails to be cast away. "I was a general in the army, in charge of prisoners on the frontier. Do you know what that means?"
She shook her head.
"Good." He straightened up little and let his breathe out slowly. He looked down at her and smiled. "In the twenty years I've been here, I've never said that to anyone.
"Shh. Yes. I lost everyone, everything when the Americans bombed my home." He pulled his wallet out quickly, fingers trembling, and drew out the photograph. He opened the yellowing paper and looked at the picture in his hand. He turned it to her. "This is them."
"Who are they?" she asked.
"My wife. My children. All dead in the bombing. All gone."
"Do Americans bomb things?"
"Yes. They do."
"Oh. I thought only bad people bombed things." She was silent for a moment. "That's bad."
There was a long pause. He had probably said too much. He folded the paper around the photo and replaced it in his wallet. He picked up the brush again, wiped it and stared at the ladder on the right side of the painting. He heard her shift a little.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was little, soft, unspeakably sad.
He looked down. The big brown eyes turned upward toward him, and for a moment he realized he was talking with an angel, with the spirit of innocence, of one who knows nothing of the monstrous evils of the world.
He bit his lip.
They heard footsteps, the clicking of men's shoes on the highly polished granite floor approaching the gallery. The little girl turned first.
"Chloe," a man's voice said sharply. "What are you doing? We've been looking for you for a half hour."
"I was here," she said innocently.
"Damn. Are you bothering him?"
Hans turned to look at the man, obviously the little girl's father. "Is she bothering you?" the man asked.
"Not at all," he said smoothly. "She's a very bright young lady."
"Gets into everything," he said, with mock disgust. Hans hoped it was mock, at least.
"I was watching him paint..." she said proudly.
"Hm. Forger, eh?" the man laughed. His hair was combed back, slicked to his head from a crest at his forehead, the rest on either side receding radically. He was growing soft under his chin, around the middle. His white dress shirt bulged over the top of his dark trousers, his tie holding the shape of the curve. His coat hung as if it had probably fit last year, but no longer.
Hans smiled a little. "Just a dabbler."
"Pretty good. I paint a little. Impressionist pieces, mostly."
"Very good," he answered politely. Go away.
"Well, we'll get out of your hair," the man said finally, thrusting out his hand. Hans slipped the brush in his mouth and shook the man's hand, nodding. The man said something unintelligible to the girl and they started out of the room. At the doorway, she paused and turned back.
"Goodbye," she said.
What's in a name?