Predawn, its first grey tone grazing the moneyed, monolithic city, defining shapes taking form, a slash of madder-rose now surfacing and riding low on the street DeMaris walks. He’s either been out all night or is an early riser and tugs on a cigarette that may be his first or last. A truck shambles by grinding its gears in torment and rage, leaving a stink of diesel he associates with a smear of black ash. He’s been here too long and must pack up his losses and thoughts and find a new place for them. Within this disparate world in which he has chosen to spend his life, he’s been overlooked, diminished, the cicatrix of repeated dismissal that’s built up over the years now a protective barrier from their blind refusal to see and motivating him to throw it all off and go his own way. What do they know? Ask Veronica. Failure always holds the texture of romance.
She demanded, almost willed, his recognition and when it continued to avoid him she became vague before vanishing altogether. She had believed in him only insofar as his ability reflected upon her. Devotion always carries a cover charge. Never again, he swore, would he succumb to the needs of another. Then, life is an uneven plain on which many unexpected things happen. Some good, some not so good. They also say fame is desirable, but it only leads to losing a good part of yourself. It’s false and no better than the rest of life.
They had said no to him so often it became a twisted form of yes. Critiques and God-Almighty opinions, gallery windows sneering at him, were a comfort. Immune to it all, he continued to live inside his conflicted world, making himself at home. Within it, he soon found freedom from everything to do as he pleased, no longer any restraints. No became his consistent companion and he went about his work with its hand on his shoulder, ignoring what anyone said. He had wanted it all and because it eluded him he stopped caring.
When he was in college, one of his professors told the class, They’ll try to prevent you from doing what they see as a waste of time. Friends, relatives, everyone you know. They see no point in art of any kind and they’ll try to save you from making a lifelong mistake. Of course, it’s all about them and how they want you to live. It’s all about control. Many of you will fold, will quit. One or two of you won’t no matter what. Remember, there are only three blank canvases – writing, music, and art. Everything else is derivative. And listen, if you ever pander to the public you’ve already lost.
I don’t know if you should follow in my steps, his father had told him. Just don’t fail at whatever you do.
Ten-year-old DeMaris took this in, feeling he’d just been told to pack up and leave. His stood looking at his coarse balsawood house modeled after the one in the magazine featuring his father’s design. Half of him wanted to destroy what he had made.
Ambergris Cay washed ashore like flotsam. It wasn’t any definite choice, but where he finds himself. The town is empty after the season, the crowds gone, hurricane glass gleaming in the sun, blinding sand and searing days. Dripping liquid light and arcs of sky blue disappointment. He hates when the streets are filled and avoids winter congestion, preferring the bumper months and beyond. But in the heat and damp his oils don’t dry successfully and sometimes run, altering his work into another vein and revealing a slant he doesn’t anticipate. Serena thinks it’s effective.
She had said yes when he had been living with no, possibly an experiment on her part. She was young and in frowsy bloom and he had removed her stylish glasses and discovered a woman of curiosity. He took her hand and said, Don’t let me down. She didn’t understand, thought she had missed something. After all, he had just walked up to her at the governor’s party he had no business attending and had interrupted her conversation with the hostess. Now, days later, what will take place he has no inkling or desire to know. His life is moment-to-moment, as it should be. She had agreed to live spontaneously and is now sprawled on the couch wearing her quiet beauty, her low intimate voice suggesting tobacco or spirits with evidence of neither. For over five minutes, he has sat inert, staring at her, until she finally says, What is it?
–I’m waiting for the next moment of you, he says.
– And what will I be?
–Whatever you want.
The gesso field captures a rudimentary balance, hair, neck, curve, leg. Monochromatic and dry-point but for nails painted alizarin-red, floating on their own yet making the image whole.
– It’s too hot, she finally says, fanning herself, perspiration glistening.
– Not yet. He sets down his brush and comes to her.
Her passion surfaces like slow lava, creating small fires here and there.
Early autumn rolls around and she’s bored, doesn’t understand his daily need to temper his work at the forge of his demon. Nothing can keep him from it. When are you going to be done? she calls from the other room, thumbing through a magazine. Serena has come to demand too much attention. When I don’t hate this, he tells her. The canvas is creating what it wants, leaving him out of it. Tranquil surroundings have given to a pent-up slathering, unrecognizable motifs. He has painted over more of them than he has finished, the dozen with their faces to the wall the exceptions. She rustles about then emerges with her sun hat and straw purse. I’m going out, she says. He doesn’t respond as she leaves.
The lake behind the summer house was inviting and on those burning days he’d jump in, the warm surface water hiding deeper layers of cold. His mother would lounge on the back porch, disengaged, abstruse, partial in the sunlight. He’d sometimes try to tempt her into the rowboat, but she’d only wave her hand and tell him to go on. One day, during their last summer at the cabin, he’d forgotten to secure its lashings and that night when the wind came up the boat tore lose from its moorings and drifted away.
Bequia, and the woman at loose ends in the next bungalow, or so he thinks. He will not make a move toward her though they seem compatible in their silence. If a man should appear at her door, he will follow his thoughts elsewhere, concentrate on his arrogant determination, his linden wood palette daubed with cadmium yellow, sienna, Taureg blue feeding the invisible caldron inside of him. Hidden potential at his fingertips waiting to be called upon.
He wears his lack of money like a crown, gives lessons to get by and is gracious toward any generosity shown him. He dresses as the poor do, relishing his frugality, appears more dumpster-diver than salvaged man. Shirts and slacks he’s made use of for years, style anathema to him, a nomenclature he doesn’t have time for. He also refuses to sell his work, doesn’t hold his predecessors in awe, and hates his contemporaries. Sellouts. Lines, squares, circles – geometry splayed upon a prepared surface, rhomboidal monotones speaking of depression.
He’s returning from the only paint store with exterior latex and interior enamel, because he has no choice. He must make do with whatever is available. He sees her walk from her door carrying a thick manila envelope and greets her on the street. She narrows her eyes and glances down at the paint cans.
–Refurbishing? she asks.
–My livelihood, what there is of it. I've run out of the necessary medium.
She raises her chin a notch and after a moment says, Now it makes sense. He doesn’t understand and she clarifies, What I hear coming from next door. He has been stripped and looks away. Don’t worry, I go through the same thing, and she nods to the bundle in her arm. I’m just too embarrassed to let it out.
He smiles. Well now that we know each other, come over for a drink later.
It could be worse. He could be scourged by words as Bethany Storm is rather than the images in his head. She on the other hand needs a reader’s engagement or her voice will remain silent despite her stack of paper. He has learned not to need attention, to spurn interest in what he creates. Accepting rejection is part of his character.
She throws herself into her role, believes they are simpatico. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is neat and orderly, he is all over the place. She gives and he takes. She speaks of Laura Riding, a hero of hers he’s never heard of. She commanded great talent, she tells him, but was underappreciated.
Is she kissing up?
She goes on to say that she also understands that men and women are the essence of life, that art can’t come close. Now she has insulted both of them.
She refuses to remain in rooms with the odor of his work, until he asks for her help. She then willingly frees herself of what she calls her prudish impulse and allows him to recreate her, confesses she will only dedicate herself to one man until the end of life. She will not, however, move on to their second act surrounded by these artifacts of his. For this, they retire to her clean chamber where she spills filthy words and he follows their lead. He knows their concupiscence derives from an atavistic gene they both carry in which they seek each other out, an arbitrary flux that no “meant-to-be” theory can mold into model form. She calls what they do poetry as figurative art. He believes she’s crazy.
He can’t listen to any more of her hyper-excitement over the check in the mail. Deadpan, he congratulates her and disappears, thinking she’ll be gone when he returns. Hair awry, jaw sandy with stubble, he meets her judging eye when he does show up a few days later, having no excuse. Some Carribe woman had lured him away from the bar, mistook him for successful, loaded, and slumming. Bethany screams at him like a wife. Why should I put up with this? But maybe it’s not the girl at all, but rather the fact that he’s never let go with her, has always withdrawn. She finds it frustrating. Unable to look her in the eye, he stares at the peeling wall-paint, advancing day by day.
–You. I trusted you and this is what I get?
–I never made any promises.
–Yeah, well this is going to be on you.
With that she rushes out and he follows not knowing what she means.
Her grousing continues and he keeps his distance, refusing to be associated with this mad woman. At the nearby three-story beach hotel, she enters and disappears and that’s as far as he will go. He’s about to turn back when she screams his name from the third-floor balcony. Everybody’s going to know exactly who you are, she cries. He approaches and looks up, tells her she’s overreacting and to get hold of herself. Climbing the cement parapet, she is then caught in a form of defenestration and nearly caught before she hits the ground.
He’s told her hospital recovery will take time and is subjected to a battery of questions, as if he’s responsible for her. Complying as best he can, he then puts on his rambling shoes to find another destination.
Toward the end of his senior year in high school, he came home to find his mother in a leg cast. I slipped and no one caught me, she told him. He didn’t know what she was talking about or whether to believe her. It was also about this time that he realized she trusted in nothing his father did and was only there for the money. She never really had a function beyond spending it, but never once did he hear them arguing over it or anything else. There was a manifest of tolerance between them until after his graduation when it seemed the terms of her contract had been satisfied and she quietly slipped away. Forever.
It’s best to keep your distance, his father said by way of explanation. You can enjoy them, but if you get too close, they’ll think they own you.
He seeks circumstances that allow his freedom to flourish. A one-way ticket to Spain – Barcelona a cliché – he finds Cadequés near Port Lligat. Early fall brings solitary streets, the pull of the past from the lines of the fishing village. Sylvan renderings from his boyhood, tender, melancholy, he paints over – no, splatters with spite to conceal his weakness. He creates much, but annihilates most. The snarl of already-dead John the Baptist – who is he kidding – is wiped out with favorable Basque beige overlaid with a grove of gnarled olive trees flush with silvery leaves, a semi-circle of fallen fruit lying in their shadows. Bethany is replaced with a blazing copse resembling the iridescent skin of hummingbirds. Tourist shit. The wrong take in the wrong place. The lone Porsche slithering through town tells him as much. He stares then turns away.
He has Mia, his strident young student, or protégé, depending on your viewpoint, who is becoming more like Frieda Kahlo. I will be as you, she says. No, you won’t. Someone may like what you’re doing. She has a natural gift and the mother is already talking marriage. No way. The girl will make someone happy, but it won’t be him. Because the approaching season hints that he must carry his act to another town, so without notice he banks what he has and departs.
A cargo boat from Trieste to Ancona, then the uphill trip to the mountain monastery of Macerata. It’s a winter of momentary content, celestial calm washing through his thoughts and carrying him beyond resentment. Can I leave these things for a time? Deposits with no claim checks to be forgotten when distance once again calls. He must travel light while painting the chiaroscuro of Italy. Sea towns and the dusky hue of the women. Harmonics of color, tonal degradation, sand mixed with the oils and applied in thick daubs. It gives heft to the canvas, an impossible impasto of dimension. Built up, the ridges could easily support a hanger. To his eye, it surpasses anything now being done. Post-modern given to Pre-future.
On a street in Anzio, his privacy is invaded by a busty young woman in a city suit. Scusa, signore. Do you have a moment? He sweeps his eyes across her, flings his cigarette to the ground and crushes it with his stained tennis shoe. Why is she here, and what does she want? She rattles out information switching between English and Italian. Her cousin works for Signora Manetta, the woman renting him the hillside cottage, her child’s lessons in lieu of rent. She gives the name Lucrezia Supenelli and produces a business card: Arte Fòro Italia. DeMaris suppresses a moan. She quickly goes on to say that her magazine is always on the lookout for talent no matter where it’s from. He tells her she’s wasting her time. Undeterred, she places a hand on his arm, flashes startling chestnut eyes in the shade of brown reserved for racing fillies. They promise something, but he doesn’t know what. He folds his arms and her hand drops away. There is still nothing I can do for you, he says. My work is not for public consumption. She’s unabashed and will not take no for an answer when she can plainly see he wants to say yes. She asks if he’s hungry. Artists are always starving and they are standing in front of a trattoriá. He could use a good meal for a change and reluctantly agrees.
She comes down from Rome on the weekends, works on him while he works on her. If she has anyone else, they don’t enter the conversation. Either way she is a marvel of proportion, her family lineage having produced near perfection in all areas. Her muscles ripple under the integument of her skin and she coaxes, teases, bucks with the best of them. If she tries to share him with the world, though, and he catches her taking a snap with her phone of anything he’s carelessly left lying around, he will snatch it from her and delete the evidence. He will leave fortuity by the wayside as it is nothing but an attempt at usury. He doesn’t believe even when he isn’t being lied to. Besides, she is the subject, not his work. And to this end he keeps her guessing until he finishes and pulls the sheet from the easel.
This is me? It’s meant to shock, fire her blood. But she laughs and thinks it’s great. This is mine, of course, she tells him. You cannot deny me. I’ve paid for it.
He’s made a mistake and there’s nothing he can do beyond desecrating it. He can’t though because of the craftsmanship, the painstaking execution that elevates the portrait to another realm. So he gives in and wraps it in butcher’s paper and loads it into her car, knowing that once she drives off he must reengage his peripatetic life.
All the structures had the same influence of hand, renderings as stylistically identifiable as the clean lines of Wright. The half-constructed hotel his father brought him to see was strong-boned and his largest contract to date. A sturdy twenty-two, DeMaris stood next to him in his hard hat as he explained this and that, understanding that his father was showing off, challenging him in some way. In his mind’s eye, he saw a pile of rubble after an earthquake. His father gestured and said, The majesty of creation in the real world. DeMaris clocked him with his eye and replied, Your world. His father laughed and laid his hand condescendingly on his shoulder. You still have time. DeMaris jerked away, gave him the finger, and never saw him again.
The years run like rainclouds and the face in the mirror becomes careworn. He’s made a success of failure and feels like a dried-up stalk, has long ago cast off what he thought he needed. Of late, he’s been setting the canvases in the sun then in front of the burning grate to manufacture crackling. Dry the damn things out to make them look old. It’s not working. And he’s drawing too much attention. He’s a fraud who should have turned to forgery, mimed the masters, pawned them off as originals, and had the last laugh. Stripped of identity, he might sleep at night. He should also have made a concerted attempt to land in an isolated place of his choosing instead of arbitrarily setting foot wherever the wind took him. In this case outside of Lisbon. He kicks the can of turpentine and it spills across the floorboard, leaches through the cracks, leaving a smell that will reign for weeks. His efforts stand like ruined children, silently staring at him.
Walking aimlessly, stopping at the crown of the bridge, looking down, then staring out across the bay. His foot finds the cross support. What’s it all for? Time has passed like a comet. He can’t go on. And so, of course, he will. Eventually, he follows his footsteps to the local cantina.
It initiates with promise, but then every port begins this way. Now it’s the pink Bahamian coral of San Lure, all lassitude and laconic breezy ideas that have no meaning. Diurnal memories cleave his thoughts, the old man always sitting on the other side of them. Spectral days, starcrossed nights, and scumbling that has a subtle effect. He had wanted Cuba, his arm raised, middle digit pointing north.
Today, Janine stands in one of the colonial buggies active during the clamoring season, the grace of her hips mimicking its curves and those of the mare. A double carriage to ride.
–Don't you ever stop? I'm bathed in sweat.
A gibbous moon pores through the window and he is near completion and ignores her. Finally rolling off, he grunts, You prefer something else? Something less stringent?
–What do you think?
He doesn’t know, as she is unreadable. Younger than him, but not of an age that would raise an eyebrow, Janine evolves day-to-day, while he remains the center of his maudit world. She swims within a tide of discovery, has a pioneering nature, and is temporarily showing her remarkable face to visitors who wander up to the activities desk at the local resort. She once combed the world as the guide for a travel program that went to corners of the globe. When funding ran out, she threw off her wanderlust and was now concentrating on the interior work of self-improvement. He has no time for such things and will not play her mind games. The question is why have any of these women hung around? Perhaps the romantic idea of the muse, someone he’s never been interested in. From their beginning, his point of contention with Janine has been the city she’s from, the one he knows only too well. It also didn’t help when she told him, I know people. Then and there he had the urge to show her the door before remembering she paid half the rent. Of his work, she fosters belief. He doesn’t know why.
–You don't fool me, she now says. I know all about you.
DeMaris looks at her with narrowed eyes, a dark fugue washing over him. And who do you think I am? He waits for comparisons, labels, some vapid psychology.
–You're lost and don't want to be found.
–Is that right?
She anchors her head in her hand and says, Tell me, where is all this leading?
He knows what she means, plucks out a cigarette, and strikes the lighter, his resistance like calluses formed from gripping the brush. Plume of smoke curling to the ceiling, he informs her, They’re mine alone. I will not conform and refuse to be judged.
The ones he keeps don’t interest him and neither does cataloging them in order to know what he has. He has never measured his value this way. If one, two, five should be missing, he would never know. Only one remains on display and that’s because she insists her likeness be viewed. He tries not to look at it, finds only mistakes he wants to correct by covering her form with a neutralizing shade in order to begin again. After awhile, it becomes a peripheral blur he doesn’t notice.
The island lays silent, burnished in the sun, glaucous waves folding in on themselves in the manner of Gainsborough. In late afternoon, he visits the bar with no walls, sits with men who once had dreams. Fisherman with rope burns and lacerated hands, the cracked blue fingernails of carpenters. He carries his own wounds where no on can see them, laughs, jokes, appreciates their solidarity. He teaches a few of their children the basics of line and balance, the possibility of color. In return, he receives the daily catch, has attention paid to whatever needs fixing in his four rooms. It gives the owner ideas and at one point the canvases have to be stored for the expansion of the space DeMaris works in. He is put out but what can he do?
He never keeps track of Janine’s movements, knows she has the same freedom that he himself demands. Of late, she has annoyingly spoken of that place he escaped from, again mentioning acquaintances. It raises his ire and he says, You’re pushing me too far, you know that? When I say no, I mean no.
She has since given up trying to get through to him.
A week later when returning from his watering hole, he finds her packing her image. She tells him she’s leaving to visit relatives and is taking it somewhere safe: You won’t have to look at it again. Unlike him, she can’t continually live like a hermit, needs the broader interaction of civilization. She also wants the carriage painting and he gives her the key to the storage bin. Clear it out for all I care. She says, Don’t be stupid.
Raining, purls of runoff dancing around the chain hanging from eve to earth. Obsidian clouds blot the horizon, wind wrinkling the sea. He knows it will come heavy and hard when it does. Should he stay or go?
After his day’s work, he’s cleaning his brushes in a bucket of acetone, cigarette dangling. He looks up at the cloudburst suddenly strumming the tin roof, moves to shut the jalousie panes, and in doing so topples the bucket. He sets his smoke quickly on the table and crouches to soak up the spill with a few rags. His cigarette tumbles to the floor and ignites it with a whoosh. His actions may not have been accidental.
What there is of a fire department screams up and along with the rain the damage is contained to the single large room. He almost feels compensated that he now has an excuse to avoid his self-flagellation. Except the charred wood and roof have to be replaced. To this extent, the owner asks for a number of large canvases in return. DeMaris gives him the key to the storage bin and tells him to take what he wants.
When Janine returns, she’s thankful he isn’t hurt, yet castigates his health for the umpteenth time. His clothes are redolent with oils and his body has transformed into that mutable stage: late-middle age paunch, incipient bone-creak, indecipherable back pain. He eats poorly, but defends himself by saying, It sustains me. He now wears glasses for the close work. And that cough.
–You sound like a wheezing car, she says. It’s those damn cigarettes and the paint fumes. You’ve been breathing them all your life. You need to see a doctor. A mainland doctor not one of these Rastafarian shamans. I’ll get François and Rubio to drag you to the plane if I have to. Looking around, she adds, It’s a good thing you got your paintings out of here.
He asks what she did in her absence. She tells him she had a good time reconnecting, the patter of life opening horizons.
–That’s nice. As long as you leave me out of it.
He allows her this forced visitation, grumbles over it, knows she’ll ignore his rebellion and follow through with her threats of intervention. What he doesn’t understand and fights is why it’s not in Miami, but in the city he abhors. Disgruntled and feeling she has instigated herself too far into his life, he argues against returning to the center of his misery. I want nothing to do with that place, he tells her.
–Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
She sees him too clearly and it’s his own fault for letting her in.
The doctor looks no older than a boy and he lays out a litany of salubrious alterations that DeMaris has no intention of following. Might as well be dead. Janine won’t chide him over his spare lifestyle because it will do no good. What she does suggest is one decent meal before they leave. This he agrees to.
After dinner, she takes him up a street he should know, but can’t recognize. Ahead stands a soaring glass abomination he instinctively recoils from. He doesn’t like the way it’s staring down at him. He must hurry past. Sudden alacrity in his step until she pulls him through the double doors and nearly drags him into the gleaming, illusory lobby. What are you doing? Where are we going? I’ve got to get out of here. He loses whatever equilibrium he has, any sense of self. Then it gets worse.
Smiling, she tugs him down a wide corridor where he encounters walls tarnished with memories he’s forgotten, one in particular. He draws her to a stop in front of herself and sets his jaw. The price is an outrage and the insult carries further by the fact it’s been sold.
But the rest of the epitaph falls away as he hears the murmur emanating from the banquet room at the end of the hall. She tries to lead him on, but he jerks away.
–No you don’t.
–Come on. You can’t back down now.
And it is too late because those gathered inside have spotted him and rise with applause. He turns and heads for the lobby. She intercepts him.
–What’s the matter with you? It’s what you’ve always wanted. I’d think you’d be relieved. You’re running from yourself, you know that?
–What do you know? You’ve ruined my life.
Salo Key. From an envelope, he pulls a letter speaking of numbers, along with a check. This one he may cash or pin to the wall with the others to throw darts at. Because it’s all come too late and doesn’t mean a thing. Justine now lives in the world where she belongs, DeMaris doggedly fighting her efforts. It doesn’t matter. He has Dorenna, whose not trying to change or improve him. Her own self-expression he encourages by telling her, Don’t listen to anyone because they’ll try to own you either way.
He lights a cigarette, betting against tomorrow, knowing the seed is old and cracked and may no longer bear fruit. Staring at the empty canvas, he thinks hard then begins the blue surface of a lake, cool water running below. He contemplates, and toward the end of the day Dorenna comes in and asks if he’s almost through. Having progressed no further, he looks up with a hint of a smile, lays his brush aside, and says, Yes.