Nora had just finished painting, on a five foot by six foot canvas, a depiction of what she thought was, on at least a few occasions in the midst of composition, the calm, cool inner workings of sub atomic structures on the planet Pluto. Of course she had never been to the planet Pluto and neither has anyone else. Yet it seemed to her, at least during those few moments, to be what the painting was trying to describe. But, after cleaning her brushes, placing them into the tomato soup can which served as their holder, and walking to the spot some twenty feet from the canvas which she used as a vantage point for viewing her larger works, she wasn’t so sure. Perhaps the calm, cool surface was really a disguise, a gauze curtain trying ineffectively to contain something much more driving, much more erotic. She was pleased with the painting, at least for now. What she would think about it tomorrow was another matter.
Nora’s studio was in a one story building which had once been a store. What kind of store neither Nora or the landlord knew for it had stopped being one a long time ago and had spent many years alternating between a storage shed and an abandoned building. It was in the old section of the downtown full of similar buildings. Sometimes the city government took them over for taxes, tore them down and then tried to interest developers in buying and building on the land. This strategy, judging by the gap-toothed appearance of Nora’s street and many of the streets surrounding, did not work. Instead it resulted in empty lots growing weeds between pieces of broken concrete. Yet, in the past few years the area had been having a sort of resurgence. Many buildings had been taken over by small enterprises such as bicycle shops, second hand furniture stores and art galleries. A few of the new owners had even redone their fronts in bright colors and hung above the store windows hand painted signs. Things were looking up, or at least the young urban planner who Nora spoke to at the coffee shop a week ago, thought so. Nora was not sure if she wanted things to look too far up. She had rented in the area precisely because it was beat up and the rents were cheap.
The interior was one large area with a section partitioned off at the rear. This contained a bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a larger room Nora used as a bedroom. In its store days the bedroom was probably the office. Legally speaking, she wasn’t supposed to be living in the building, but Nora, along with the occupants of many of the other buildings, faced with the impossibility of paying two sets of rent and expenses, ignored the regulations. Occasionally an inspector came sniffing around making veiled threats but nothing ever came of it. Nora suspected that the city fathers were ecstatic to have any tax revenue from the buildings and were not about to kill the goose laying the golden egg, whatever the regulations said. The inspectors, a queer mixture of the literal and the idealistic, were incensed. Nothing unusual in this for the world has never had a shortage of outraged inspectors.
In the front of the building was a large store window extending across the front. Nora had taped over this a patchwork quilt of brightly coloured wrapping paper leaving, at the very top, a six inch band to let in the light. The band was six inches above average eye level so she didn’t bother to curtain it. The window faced east, giving morning light. Most of her work was done between six and noon but sometimes she worked in the afternoons and evenings as well. Two three bulb fluorescent light fixtures, rescued by Nora from a bin in the back lane, hung over the work space. When she found the fixtures the bulbs were still in them. They all worked.
Nora had a buyer for the painting she was working on which was highly unusual. Six weeks ago, at a show she had at a gallery a block over, the President of an insurance company commissioned it on the spot. He had just been elevated to his position from twenty years as a VP and wanted to put his own personal stamp on his office and the boardroom. All of the previous ten presidents of the company had been followers of the representational in matters of art, or ‘wolves and grain elevators’ as the President put it. He preferred non representational. He wanted a painting five by six. Other than expressing a wish for something ‘not too gloomy’ he left the subject up to her. “The rest of them won’t know what the hell to make of it anyway,” he said.
“How much would you be paying for it?” asked Nora.
“Fifteen is the usual but since it will be larger than usual, seventeen. If that’s all right by you.”
“That will be all right by me,” said Nora. The most she had ever got for a painting was nine hundred. She suppressed a rising current of pure joy until the man, after writing out a personal check for half of the amount, left. Then she slipped out the back door into the lane and shouted. Seventeen thousand was two years living expenses, maybe more. It was September. They agreed on delivery in March. She wanted to have plenty of time to produce something really exceptional. As well this meant that the income would be spread over two tax years. The President told her that the company would have the work framed. Many painters insisted on doing the framing themselves but she didn’t. Once she sold a painting she forgot about it. When she came upon one of her pieces in the house of an acquaintance, or in a public space, her emotional response was like running into someone you once knew very well but whom time and circumstance had turned into a stranger.
Nora told none of her painter friends she had received the commission. She figured it was a one off, a passing bubble and informing them would only excite envy and jealousy. Although legally it was unnecessary, she gave Lois, the owner of the gallery where the show was held, five hundred dollars but she refused to tell her why or where the money came from. She took another five hundred and converted it into twenty dollar bills. Over the next while she gave these away to her mooching art friends who were always on the lookout for a handout to buy cigarettes, coffee or beer and a sandwich at the bar. She became very popular for a while but when the five hundred was gone she started saying no. She had to eat and pay her own expenses.
A month into the new painting the urban planner, whom Nora had met at the coffee shop, came knocking at her door. It was noon, his lunch hour, and since she was finished for the morning she invited him in and made coffee. She supposed he was doing what urban planners do, building informal contacts with people in the neighborhood. Usually she was suspicious of bureaucrats and intellectuals who, in her experience, spent a great deal of time trying to find meaning in things which essentially have no meaning. She had found it best to discourage such idle chatterers. They wasted your time and the discussions were tedious and repetitive.
The urban planner sat on one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table. When he started out the conversation by claiming that he hated urban planning, Nora said to herself. “Another romantic idiot!” When he said he was saving money for a change into sculpture and that he had in the rucksack sitting on his lap a few examples of his work she inwardly groaned but tried to keep her face as neutral as possible. He pulled the sculptures out and placed them on the table. She sat down and looked at them very carefully. She hating giving her opinion on another person’s work but if there was no way out of it one had to shoulder the burden and be brutally honest. Or, in cases where the person was a hopeless noodle brain, where her real opinion would be merely a matter of violence and pain, to be kindly, vague and encouraging. Even someone without talent could enjoy themselves doodling and dabbing. Why not? What she saw before her on the table, however, was in a different category.
The sculptures were small – six inches high – and representational, which did not bother her in the least. As far as she was concerned artistic endeavor had many rooms and to close the door on any of them was pure prejudice. Into his representational figures the urban planner had introduced a distortion, a poignancy which made them seem incredibly alive. She picked one off the table and held it up to the light. It had been carved out of a medium dark wood and been rubbed with oil until it shone in a dazzling shine of grain and detail. An old woman at a bus stop looking, with a deep yearning, a deep longing, to see if her bus was coming. The figure made such an impact on Nora that she gazed at it intently for two or three minutes while wondering how it was possible for such a thing to exist in the world. Finally she put it down and picked up the others, one by one and looked at them. A bartender. A young woman doing her fingernails. When she was finished she put the last one back on the table and said,
“You poor bastard!”
They talked for some time until the urban planner put his sculptures back into his bag and went back to the office. He left one for her as a gift – the old lady at the bus stop. He was a careful observer. It was the only one she had held up to the light twice. The urban planner’s name was Jeff and they made a time for him to come back and bring more of his sculptures.
Later that afternoon she took the old lady figure around the corner and showed it to Lois.
“Who did this? You?” Lois asked.
“No. Just somebody. He didn’t give me permission to bring it here so I can’t tell you his name. I just wanted to see what you think of it. I think it’s the most marvelous thing that I’ve seen in a long time.”
“Send him to me!” pleaded Lois.
After some commission talk Nora agreed. Lois usually took forty percent but with something she thought she could move quickly she would take less. After a bit of jostling she offered twenty-five. It took them very little time to agree on price. The figures were obviously of the highest quality and would demand a good dollar.
When Jeff came back it was December and already snow was piled high against the front of the building. It was deeply cold – minus thirty-five. When he came in he spied the electric heater and rushed over to it, turning himself round and round while he removed his toque, mitts, scarf and gigantic parka. Nora explained her talk with Lois to him. She explained about the commission and the price range. He listened with apt attention. When she was finished she asked,
“How many pieces do you have?”
“Two hundred maybe.”
“Two hundred! How did you find the time to make two hundred of these and still be an urban planner?”
“I’ve been carving since I was sixteen, in my spare time. At the university, if your parents are paying the bills, you have a lot of spare time. I wasn’t interested in the things the other students did, like drinking and football games.”
“A monk of art then?”
Jeff smiled sheepishly.
“Are they all the same quality as the ones you’ve shown me?”
Jeff shrugged his shoulders. “I guess. The first thirty I did, up to the age of nineteen, I burned. I didn’t want them around bugging me.”
“If Lois offers an exclusive contract, don’t give it to her. Give her ten of the best to sell and only ten. You choose them. If she wants to choose them, say no.”
“Lois is a friend of mine. She’s very intelligent, has excellent taste and isn’t particularly money hungry. But she is a businesswoman. Right now she probably lives on as little money as the artists themselves do but there will come a time when she won’t be able to spend it all. She’s a comer as they say. The deal I negotiated is the best you will get right now. Later you can see. Just make sure you don’t sign an exclusive contract, for God’s sake.”
“I won’t,” said Jeff.
As he was preparing to leave, performing the elaborate routine of scarf, mitts, toque and parka, she asked. “So why did you become an urban planner?”
“My parents insisted on a career and they were footing the bills.”
“A good reason, especially when they were also giving you time to learn to sculpt.”
“Yes, but they didn’t know about that.”
“No. I have lived in my own place since I was sixteen. They have never been to one of my apartments. I visited them twice a year in Utah. If they knew about the carving they would be ‘dissappointed’. They would frown on it as time wasting and frivolous. They are quite wealthy and judge everything by money and social position. They wanted me to do an MBA and go into the business world. We compromised on urban planning. I think they see it as a passing fad and later, when I sober up, I can use the urban planning as a kind of entrée to the world of company directorships.”
“Ah,” said Nora whose own experience was very different. She had put herself through art school with part time jobs.
“They are not bad people. In fact they are very kind and generous. But they are limited in the way they look at things.”
Before he left Nora took the cloth off the new painting. Jeff took a good look, moving about to see it from different angles. As he was going out the door he said, “Something’s missing.” Nora could have punched him but she knew he was right and she let him go without another word. She put the cloth back on and went off to spend the afternoon in the bar. There she met a graduate English student who entertained her by quoting long passages from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Beautiful but void of meaning. “Inventing your own language is more like a freak show than it is literature, don’t you think?” Nora asked him. “No. I do not,” he replied. Shortly after he left her table for a group of long hairs in the corner and she was left to drink her last two beers with Janice, a hooker who often worked the corner just outside her building. Janice explained to her the trouble she was having with her daughter whom she referred to as “the teenager from hell”. Nora didn’t say much. She had no children and had no plans to have any. The terrible conflicts people get into with their teenagers were a mystery to her. After Janice had told her, in gory detail of several blood curdling episodes, she asked, “Why don’t you try letting her do whatever she wants?” Janice looked at her as if she had lost her mind. But she was a good natured woman and after absorbing the shock, was soon rattling away as if Nora had never intervened and made such an insane suggestion.
Back at the studio Nora took a nap. When she got up she took three aspirin and had a hot bath. Then she worked on the painting until midnight.
Jeff put his sculptures in at Lois’s and they sold like hotcakes. When they were all gone he gave her fifteen more. She raised the prices and lowered her commission to twenty-three percent.
Nora spent the month of January in misery. She couldn’t paint. Almost mad from inactivity she bought a second hand TV and started watching movies she took out of the library – classic American movies and European art films.
When she went to the bar she bored everyone with her opinions on “High Noon” or “Public Enemy Number One” or “Roma”. She even read some film criticism which the Finnegan’s Wake student suggested to her. Contrary to her usual practice she stayed up late at night watching. When she lay down to go to sleep bright coloured images appeared on the screen behind her closed eyes and snatches of dialogue whispered themselves into her reluctant ears.
Early in February she started going around to the galleries. After the first two days she decided that all artists were phonies and the boring details of their struggles less worthy of attention than the monologue of a wino in a back lane. On the third day she saw some photographs she really liked. Then, in an obscure little gallery in the burbs she saw a series of paintings which excited her. She began to paint again. In two weeks the painting for the insurance company was done and she was working on three others, simultaneously.
When Jeff came this time it was six o’clock rather than his usual noon hour. She was arguing with herself whether to spend the night reading or in the bar. Reading had a slight advantage and she was rummaging through a box of books in a corner when the knock came on the door. She noticed he wasn’t carrying his usual rucksack of sculptures.
He sat at the table and she gave him a cup of coffee. “I suppose we could go out for supper at a restaurant,” he said.
Jeff talked like that. It was as if he had thrown out a matter for analytical debate rather than asked a question. It was a way, Nora thought, of protecting himself from rejection. “OK,” she said.
“O good,” he said, “I’ll pay.” He left the choice of restaurant up to her and she chose a hole in the wall Chinese place within walking distance. It was a Tuesday night and the place was empty. They did most of their business in the day. They ordered separate combination plates. They ate mostly in silence. When they were finished coffee Nora asked, “Would you like to go to the bar?”
“Yes. There’s one in the hotel down the street. I go there frequently.”
“OK,” he said. He paid at the counter and then left at the table, Nora noticed, a generous tip.
At the bar the graduate student, in his usual corner, (“What a soak!” thought Nora.) waved to her but didn’t come over because she was in the company of another man. A diplomat, thought Nora, who reads meaningless languages. Nora let Jeff chose a two-seater in a corner and they ordered German beer. Jeff insisted on paying and Nora let him. If we have sex, she thought, at least I’ll get a meal and a few beers out of it. After four beers Jeff was slurring his words slightly. Not used to drinking, Nora thought. Besides, being from Utah, his parents were probably strict Mormons. He did have the blonde hair and clean cut, squarish good looks Mormon missionaries often have. At one time they frequently knocked at her door until she hung up a terrifying picture of Lucifer cut out of a horror magazine, on the inside of the door glass in front of the curtain. She remembered thinking that they were not very vigorous Christians. If they had been vigorous Christians such a door would have been exactly the one they would have knocked on. She suggested to Jeff they go for a walk and he agreed.
He was a bit tipsy but the cold and a half hour walk sobered him up. After forty-five minutes Nora started leaded them towards her place. When they were a block away she said. “We could go to my place for a cup of coffee.” He seemed to be relieved at the suggestion.
When they were inside Nora took off her outer gear and then continued on until she was clad only in her underwear. “You can have the first bath,” she said.
“I’m not very experienced with women, “ he said.
“That’s OK,” said Nora, “neither am I.”
Jeff laughed and headed toward the bathroom.
Jeff wasn’t greatly experienced but he wasn’t hopeless. A few times she had to tell him what to do. She already knew what to do to him. Although inexperienced he was passionate and uninhibited. They came a few seconds apart after a vigorous race to the finish line. After their breathing had returned to normal Nora took him by the hand and pulled him out into the big room. She turned on the light above the work area and took the cloth off the insurance painting. It was magnificent. Intricate, full of exquisite detail, layered into a great depth which was numinous and shining and seemed to go on forever.
“Wow,” said Jeff. Nora playfully punched him on the right bicep. “See,” she said, “you are not the only one who can do it.”
Jeff didn’t have to be at work until noon the next day so he stayed the night. Nora had a Queen sized bed so there was lots of room. Jeff slept the whole night with his hand on her left buttock. In the morning he went out to get take out breakfast from the bar. Before he left he kissed her on the cheek. Nora uncovered the three paintings she was working on and began to work.
After they had spent three nights out of five together, Nora asked, “Where do you live?”
He seemed a little abashed by this question. After a slight pause he replied, “In a tower.”
“A tall one?”
“Does it have a balcony?”
“Then after supper we should go there. I love balconies.”
She wasn’t surprised that the place was very neat. She also wasn’t surprised that the furniture was the usual kind of furniture people have in such places – bland and interchangeable with thousands, even millions of other pieces of furniture inhabiting similar places. But she was surprised his bathroom was dirty. “Your bathroom is dirty,” she shouted out to where he had remained standing in the living room. Her own was impeccable. Never, since the age of fourteen, had she had a dirty bathroom. For five years before she left home, she cleaned the beat up bathroom in her parent’s house even though it was mostly her brothers’ dirt that she cleaned out of it. Pubic hair in the bathtub, piles of smelly underwear and sport’s clothing. And, after an initial period of self-righteousness, she hadn’t complained either. Even then she was a fatalist. The moon shines in the sky. Boys, especially smelly, arguing, pain in the ass brotherly boys, seldom clean the bathroom. Her mother who spent her afternoons smoking Pall Malls and watching soap operas, left to her own devices, that is to say not hollered at by Nora’s loud, cantankerous father, would have cleaned it perhaps once a year. If it was going to be done properly she was the one who had to do it.
When she came back into the living room he was actually blushing. My God she said to herself. Hard to find a man who can blush like that nowadays, unshakable as we all seem to be. “That’s OK,” she said. “I’m a nut about bathrooms and like to have them done just so. It would be tragic to have arguments about cleaning the bathroom.”
Jeff’s balcony overlooked the river. The river was frozen and covered with a great depth of white snow laid down in corrugations created by the wind. Nora took thirty pictures with Jeff’s digital camera. He had a telephoto lens and she took some close ups of the houses on the far bank. They spent the night at his place, first changing the sheets. Well, at least, Nora thought, he isn’t as perfect and innocent in all things as his chubby Mormon cheeks would have you believe.
After a few months they settled into a routine. Some nights they spent at his place, some at hers. Jeff cooked and three or four nights a week he made supper. Other than bacon and eggs and sandwiches, Nora didn’t cook. The other nights they ate out.
When a year had gone by they decided not to move in together. Instead Jeff let the lease on his apartment expire and moved into a small brick block down the street from Nora’s. It was a one bedroom. He wanted her to help him chose the furniture from his apartment to go into the new place.
“It would be kinder to torture me with hot knives,” Nora said.
Jeff wasn’t insulted. He was neutral about furniture. Although he could look at period pieces in books from the library and admire their great beauty, for him what he had in his home was purely a functional matter. Actually all the furniture he had in his old place had been chosen out of catalogues and shipped to him by his mother but he didn’t tell Nora that. He put an ad in the paper and sold it all. Then he and Nora went around to thrift stores and second hand shops buying a mixture of truly odd, strange things and three traditional solid oak pieces – a buffet, a bureau and a night table. Before this he made do with the floor for a bed and four milk crates borrowed from Nora, to sit on.
After five years Jeff was selling in the big centers and quit working as an urban planner. Nora was selling out of a gallery in the east and bought her studio building. Jeff helped her build on a small extension at the back. They did it at night when the inspectors were sound asleep in comfortable beds in the burbs.
When they were thirty-three (they were the same age) Nora had a baby girl with cherubic cheeks and a square forehead just like her father’s. “You Mormons have powerful genes,” Nora told him when he was visiting her in the hospital.
Jeff’s parents came to see the baby. His father left after two days but his mother, Evelyn, stayed a full week, visiting them every day from her suite in a swanky downtown hotel. It was obvious that she was a little fearful of the neighbourhood but she adored the baby and, surprisingly, at least for Jeff, liked Nora. They had the same sharp, sardonic way of seeing things.
When they were seeing her off at the airport, the baby, asleep on Nora’s shoulder after being kissed perhaps thirty times by her departing grandmother, Evelyn handed Jeff an envelope.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“A bank draft. I enquired at that condo building next to you and one will be going up for sale in two months. Buy it for me, please. He may want to spend his time in Utah counting money but I want to be part of the life of my grandchild. I’ll be here half time I figure. He can play golf. You won’t mind, Nora?”
“Certainly not,’ said Nora, “I can use the help.”
“Good,” she said. “and what will you do Jeff, when he leaves you all that money?”
“Give it away,” said Jeff.
“A very good idea. An excellent idea,” said his mother. Then she turned and walked down the short corridor and through the security doors. They watched her until the doors flapped behind her and they could see her no more.