By Christine Sneed
Featured Art: Self-Portrait in the Artist’s Studio by Emile Masson
Antonio Martedi, a painter and sculptor who had sold what he sometimes boasted were his least interesting works to American museums, told his granddaughter, April Walsh, on what turned out to be the day before his death, that he had not lived in fear of mediocrity so much as the disdain of beautiful women. He had made art because he wanted to be loved, preferably by many beautiful women in a slow but uninterrupted progression, women who would remember him fondly after their affair had ended and keep whatever sketches or canvases he had given them in an honored place in their homes. “But if after a while they sold my work for a good price to someone who knew how to appreciate it, I wouldn’t have held it against them. The money would be another way for me to keep my place in their hot little hearts.” This was the first time April had heard any of this, and she had no idea what had prompted it. Her grandfather had a reserve of stories that he repeated with depressing regularity for a man widely known for his flamboyance. She assumed that she had heard all he was willing to tell by the time she had graduated from film school and was failing to sell her scripts or to get hired as the production assistant’s own scorned assistant.
The same afternoon that he made this unexpected disclosure, he gave her three of his old sketchbooks and ordered her not to tell anyone that she had them because then she would be tempted to sell them and this would greatly displease him. “Unlike the presents to my old girlfriends, if I wanted someone other than you to have these notebooks, I would have sold them myself a long time ago or donated them to some art school library.”
Each sketchbook was a black cloth-bound diary, the pages unlined. One notebook held only ink and charcoal sketches of both men and women, mostly nudes. Another held small studies in pastels of notable buildings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, all cities where her grandfather had taught as an artist-in-residence. The third held numerous sketches of household objects and women’s faces, and a series of Matisse-like cut-outs of trees, skyscrapers, and the female figure that were like nothing she had ever seen him create on a larger scale. She imagined that she could have sold each notebook for thousands of dollars. But she would never do it.
It was the following afternoon at a quarter past one during a light snowfall that Martedi skied into a tree on a mountain in Breckenridge and broke his neck. April was with her mother on a different slope and they didn’t hear about his death until two hours later. Hearing the news from a gray-faced doctor and a terrified ski-lodge official, she thought immediately of the sketchbooks he had just given to her and wondered what had prompted him to give them away. She knew that he hadn’t been suicidal, and witnesses’ accounts all concurred: he had hit a patch of ice, lost his poles, and slid at high velocity into a small cluster of pines.
The obituaries that ran in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian all mentioned his paintings, the early conceptual and the late-period figurative pieces, some of which hung in the Art Institutes of Chicago and Boston, the MoMA, and the Tate Modern, and his public sculptures, one of which was a controversial bullfrog-like structure that had once been considered, apparently without irony, a good candidate for installation in the spot where the Reichstag used to stand, but the frog ended up a feature of Manchester, England’s, urban renewal project. Also mentioned were his liaisons with politicians’ daughters, TV actresses, lingerie models, former nuns, and cosmetic-company heiresses. The Guardian’s obituarist wrote: “In several of his works, Martedi immortalized the dip of a woman’s waist. He considered it one of two divine curves that validated God’s existence. The breasts, of course, are the other divine curve. He considered the derrière a close third, by the way.” The L.A. Times’ obituarist likewise wrote: “He worried that American men would never be capable of adequately appreciating the beauty of American women, and for the last fifteen years of his life, he sporadically toured the country and gave free lectures and figure-drawing lessons to men of all ages and social classes. He hoped that a man’s ability to lovingly capture the curve of a lover’s hip or cheek with a charcoal pencil would save couples from chronic unhappiness.”
At the time of his death, he was seventy-one and his girlfriend was a forty-six-year-old Norwegian-born sculptor named Lidia Bjur who lived in a Lower East Side walk-up that Martedi had owned and also lived in, bestowing a flooreach to Lidia and one other tenant, an octogenarian widower who had agreed to sell Martedi the building for much less than it was worth if he were allowed to stay for as long as he wanted to. It was Lidia, a sexy and self-professed troublemaker, who introduced April to Barrett Hayes a few weeks after her grandfather had been cremated, his ashes flown to Rome and surreptitiously scattered by April, her mother, and Lidia on the Spanish Steps just after midnight, as his will had made clear they must be.
According to Lidia, Barrett was a handsome misfortune—a long-lashed, floppy-haired painter in his late twenties who had sold several of his canvases at a respectable gallery in Chelsea a year earlier, but lasting recognition had continued, most unfairly, he was convinced, to elude him. Lidia warned April that he was ambitious and restless and might be interested in her—no insult intended—solely because he hoped to claim some part, no matter how doubtful, of her grandfather’s genius. April wasn’t ugly or crass or untalented, but a lot of the women Barrett knew had as much visibly on offer as she did, as Lidia sternly made clear. It would be best not to get too attached to him—she should expect nothing complicated, and try not to get into anything with him likely to leave a mark. Sex if she wanted, yes of course, but she was not to let him get to her heart. Lidia would not say whether or not she had slept with him, so April assumed that she had.
As both women instantly recognized, Lidia had offered her what she knew would be a terrific opportunity to court disaster, yet another in the ever-lengthening line of her so far shockingly disappointing adulthood. But how often were these terrible opportunities as attractive as Barrett Hayes, with his smoky voice and dusty, oilcloth-tinged scent? Not to mention his pretty lips, serious eyebrows, and his paintings of urban decay and feral animals in futuristic junkyards which April recognized as good if not great. This assessment, however, she knew to keep to herself.
Barrett liked to be called Barrett and he told her this with an ironic smile while holding her hand for a very long time after Lidia introduced him. He was a man who really, really liked to touch soft things and he told her this too. They were introduced at the memorial bacchanal organized in honor of Antonio’s appetite for beautiful things and questionable behavior. Barrett stayed within whispering distance for most of the party, bringing April glasses of murky red wine, making her blush and feel idiotic, yanking off her clothes with his blue-gray eyes that she supposed had seen more naked women than she would ever want to hear about. At one point he said something jawdroppingly insincere that forced her to recognize she would never underestimate her ability to abase herself: his words made her want to have sex with him immediately. “You’re the type of woman I bet I could fall in love with,” he murmured, holding her arm just above the elbow, apparently one of his many favorite soft places.
The “I bet” made her nervous because it implied the opposite—of course he wasn’t sure. Not at all. Here was a boy in a man’s body, a clever disguise that in her experience most good-looking boys had figured out how to use. But maybe she was being too cynical, maybe he was sure?
Yet there was no doubt, even in her wine-fuzzed mind, that he could not be trusted. “I bet not,” she said, her voice too loud from the four glasses she had soaked down in the past hour and a half. “You don’t know me at all.”
“I know everything I need to know.”
She snorted. “Stop lying to me.”
He smiled. “I don’t lie. Ever. And let me tell you a secret, April Martedi.” He paused, and in that long second, she saw him in front of his bathroom mirror, testing the effect of these whoppers. She knew that he did it. He absolutely did. “Most people hate that I don’t lie. Because the crazy truth is, lies are the only things saving us from extinction.”
Go right through the door and never, ever talk to him again. Ever. This was the strident voice that she heard and promptly ignored. It almost always spoke up right before she was about to plunge into something fatally stupid, its timing ruthless. She and Barrett were standing next to a glowering portrait of a female acrobat that her grandfather had begun five years earlier and left unfinished. The acrobat lay flat on her back on a net, presumably having just fallen from the trapeze. This acrobat-model was at the party, her long black hair in the same fierce bun she had worn in the portrait. April had caught herself staring at the woman’s long arms and legs; they were bare and beautifully firm, shown off in the same purple leotard she had worn in the painting. Her name was Pony but April didn’t believe it. Barrett, however, did, and she resented him for this.
They went to his apartment at one in the morning, not hers because she was staying with Lidia. Her apartment was in godforsaken Rancho Cucomunga, California, with all six and a half of her unsold screenplays and her unhappily divorced roommate. Lidia knew what they were up to and April didn’t bother to pretend. Lidia gave her an unreadable look and said, “You can ring the bell downstairs at any hour. I’ll answer it.”
One thing became unexpectedly clear as soon as they were naked—Barrett had the roundest, firmest buttocks she had ever gotten her hands on. They were from bike-riding, he told her, obviously proud. For five years he had paid his rent by working as a bike messenger, and the muscular ass had stayed long after he had quit the job. “Who can reasonably accuse the working man of not being beautiful?” he asked with a grin, his hands smoothing her sides and long, tired legs, something no boy had ever done before with such tenderness.
“You’re totally ridiculous,” she managed to say, trying not to whimper as his hands and mouth had made their slow trek south.
He was much better than she had expected. Sadly, he was very close to phenomenal.
Despite the terrific chaos that had overtaken her body when he parted her legs and made his big move, her mind dimly recognized that his expertise at such a delicate, necessary task could be disastrous for her. For a fevered second, she had a picture in her head of the lunatic in Fitzcarraldo, a man obsessed with carrying a boat up a mountain.
When they finally stopped, he let her fall into an exhausted, dreamless sleep in the middle of his bed. The clock said 11:11 when she woke the next day with stiff inner thighs, chapped lips, and whisker burn. It had been several months since she had slept with anyone but herself. The first thing he said while she was self-consciously scrubbing at the mascara flakes she suspected were lodged beneath her eyes was, “I don’t like many people. Maybe eight or nine. Lidia is one of them. I trust her.”
“That’s nice of you, but I don’t,” April croaked, her voice stuck in the middle of her throat.
“That’s because you’re jealous of her.”
She looked at him, taken aback. “No, I’m not.”
He smiled, several strands of his floppy hair stuck to the corner of his mouth. She stopped herself from reaching up to brush them away. He would have thought it too intimate, despite where this same mouth had spent half the night. “We should all be jealous of someone,” he murmured. “Jealousy is at the root of most desires.”
“Please stop with the dimestore wisdom. It’s way too early for me.”
“It’s almost noon, Mademoiselle.”
“Noon isn’t early if you stay up until four-thirty.” He had worked her over for close to three hours. Only four other men in her life had tried to do what he had done to her. One had succeeded, the others had merely thought they had. Despite her suspicions about what he could do to her in the future, she felt grateful for all that he had done last night.
“I’m surprised you noticed. You fell asleep faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. You shut your eyes and it was like turning off a lamp. Out you went.”
“My only talent.”
He studied her. “You try to be so brittle and sarcastic but I know that’s not really who you are.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m soft in the middle like most sluts.” The lunatic with the boat flashed through her mind again. She had a headache, a parched mouth and needed to pee but was afraid that if she got out of bed, she would never be welcomed back.
“I don’t think you’re a slut. I’m the slut,” he said.
She gave him a wry look but said nothing. His hair stood out like a lady’s fan behind his head—a peacock, she thought. It was an image she knew she would poach for the screenplay she had been trying for seven months to finish. Everything that had happened with him she would poach. He would love it if he ever found out, if she ever sold the work and became someone other than the renowned, lecherous, brilliant Martedi’s granddaughter and stopped living with a very sad twenty-seven-year-old who kissed pictures of her unfaithful ex-husband and sobbed whenever she heard “The Girl from Ipanema.” She forced herself out of bed and went down the hall to the bathroom where she looked in the mirror while peeing and decided her face was not that much of a disaster.
Several bars of fancy soap sat in a neat pile next to the sink—lavender, pear, almond-honey, magnolia, rose. Probably not a good sign, she thought. It also seemed that despite, or perhaps because of, Lidia’s warning, she might be falling flat on her face for Barrett Hayes. It had happened to her before in a matter of hours. Like death and other natural disasters, when it was your time, it was your time. God, she already sounded like him. She frowned at the mirror now, staring at her tired face. She had no idea how much he liked her or liked looking at her, despite his asinine, wine-drenched avowals at the party. It seemed a safe bet that she was not one of his exalted eight or nine.
In ten minutes, she had dressed herself and left his basement apartment with its cloying smells of rancid cooking oil, varnish, and dust. He had offered to get them bagels but she had shaken her head, convinced that her quick departure would seem like an escape to him; optimally, it would force him to feel insecure and question her feelings. She did not want to leave at all, but she knew that the fuck-and-run tack could work just as well when the female in the pair tried it. But he did not protest her refusal to stay for breakfast; he only gave her a quizzical look and said, “Okay, my sweet, suit yourself.”
Four days passed before he called her, which was only two days before she was due to return to California. During his infuriating silence, Lidia was unfailingly gentle with her, putting fresh flowers in her room, telling her that she must be patient with the current circumstances of her professional life and keep writing—at all costs, keep writing.
One afternoon when April felt angrily heartsick and plagued by four o’clock malaise, Lidia grasped her arm and said that though Barrett was sexy, he was still a child and there was no moral way around this. “If not him,” she said, “then someone else. You probably don’t want to think about it, but it’s true. I never thought I’d recover from my ex-husband, but I was wrong.”
“I don’t really like him. I hardly know him.”
Lidia wasn’t impressed. “You don’t have to. That’s the problem.”
The two women ate breakfast together each morning, usually not before eleven, both of them preferring to stay up very late reading or working alone in their rooms. After yogurt and coffee, they would climb two flights of stairs and wade into the morass of Antonio’s studio to tidy and sort. April’s mother Beatrice, who was the executor of her father’s estate, had already spent two weeks working through the stacks of canvases and sketches and half-finished sculptures, some of the figurative sculptures in costly Italian marble, some made of wood or sandstone or the rough media of burlap and tar paper. The gallery owner whom Antonio had worked with exclusively for the last twenty-three years had taken whatever Beatrice would allow, and the remainder had been left where it lay, for her and Lidia and April to confront when they found the energy to. Beatrice had left the day of the bacchanal, having bought tickets for a trip to Prague with April’s stepfather months before Antonio had died. She had told Lidia and April to do what they wanted to do with the studio, but not to sell or throw anything away.
Her grandfather, unlike many other artists, had not been a packrat. But fifty-three years of art-making had resulted in a mountain of finished work along with colorful detritus and discards—five of them small, intricate paintings of mournful women’s faces that she had seen the preliminary sketches of in one of the notebooks he had given to her. The women were part of a series he had titled A Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, the other four portraits in the series having been sold several years earlier. April knew he could have sold these other five instantly if he hadn’t thought them slapdash and immature. They weren’t, but he could not be convinced otherwise once he had made up his mind. Nevertheless, his habit had been to paint over canvases that he considered outright failures.
When Barrett finally called her, offering no excuse for the four-day silence other than many hours spent in his studio, he asked if he could come over to look at her grandfather’s studio before taking her out for dinner. “Yes,” she said. “But no stealing.”
“We’ll have to see about that,” he said mildly.
Despite being three rooms removed from the phone, Lidia knew who had called before April had said a word. “Make him pay the check. He needs to earn whatever you offer him.” April wasn’t sure if Lidia smirked as she said this. “It’s none of your business,” April wanted to growl. Instead she said, “I always do.”
“Good,” said Lidia but it was clear that she did not believe a word. She disappeared into the back room of the apartment where she kept a black- and-white TV and a fossil-grade CD player, vintage 1987. This was the same room where Martedi had often slept with her, Lidia had casually revealed on the night of the bacchanal; April rarely visited—the site of her grandfather’s final old-man acts of virility flustering and a little obscene—in part because she thought Lidia beautiful but her grandfather not at all.
Barrett arrived with a small bunch of daisies and two fragrant, perfect white lilies. The lilies were for her, the daisies for Lidia. For a boy-man, she had to admit that he was unusually thoughtful. He kissed her cheek and gave her a naked look that made her feel sweaty, but he did not want to talk when a few moments later they stood together in her grandfather’s studio. “I’m sorry, but it’s a temple,” he said softly. “It’s the kind of place where the secrets of the universe reside.”
She almost rolled her eyes but could see that he actually meant it.
“I know you think that sounds corny, but if they’re not in art, then they’re nowhere.”
“Maybe,” she said, unconvinced. “I guess I’ve heard that before.” “It’s all right to hear it again because it’s true.”
The studio smelled inexplicably of black pepper, also of turpentine and burnt coffee. The room was narrow but long, with four tall windows, each dusty and with a few cracked panes that her grandfather had ignored for years, saying that if an art thief wanted to climb the side of the building and steal his work, he’d take it as a compliment. He had had an unswerving faith in his ability to make more.
Barrett went over to the unfinished painting of Pony, the acrobat. April’s mother hadn’t yet given it to her father’s art dealer because she wanted to touch it up before releasing it. Beatrice painted well but didn’t often do it; she was a cellist by trade, her talents, like her father’s, eclipsing most of her peers. April had spent much of her adolescence waiting for her own great talent to manifest itself, screenwriting something she had started at sixteen with arrogant expectations but had quickly found herself humbled by, especially in the inexorable way that the story and the characters, around page twenty or thirty, veered cruelly away from her. Some of these early scenes she had rewritten as many as twenty-four times.
Barrett studied Highwire for a long minute while she grew restless and jealous, wondering if he had slept with Pony during the four days she hadn’t heard from him. She wondered if he had slept with everyone she had caught him glancing at during the night of the bacchanal. This has to stop! she thought wildly. I might as well be gouging myself with a rusty nail for all the good it’s doing me.
She knew that she might end up begging him for something he wouldn’t want to give if she weren’t returning to California in two days. She was twenty-five and in no danger of becoming a self-possessed woman. She also realized that in the past week, she had probably also become infatuated with Lidia who, aside from being beautiful, was calm and talented enough to have had the same gallery representing her work for the past nine years. She didn’t want to have sex with Lidia but she wished she could really know her, maybe hold her hand once in a while, be adored just as much in return.
When Barrett had stopped ogling Highwire, he spent several more minutes looking at the discards, marveling over her grandfather’s expert brushstrokes, his stunning instinct for color and depth and light. When he finally looked again at April, he saw that she hadn’t shared in his euphoria. “You’re brooding about something,” he said. “I would bet a hundred bucks that that’s your natural state.”
She regarded him. “No, not at all. But I do sometimes feel a little depressed when I come to New York. Everything’s so dense here. With all the tall buildings, you have to fight for sunlight. It really starts to wear on me after a few days.”
“This is the greatest vertical city on earth. We’re living right in the middle of a myth,” he said happily. “Where you live, it’s all horizontal and embryonic.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “There are myths out there too. Some of the biggest ones.”
He gave her a knowing smile. “I’d bet you’re another would-be starlet with glamorous, X-rated dreams. Not just a struggling screenwriter.” He didn’t sound mocking, but he also wasn’t trying to be nice. Since handing her the lilies and following her up the stairs, he had withdrawn from her, made her feel like a nettling distraction during his worship session of the great Martedi’s brilliant work. It seemed she was jealous of everyone.
Or else in love with them. Probably both. This was her natural state. There seemed little chance of overcoming these tendencies without years of intense therapy, which she had always stayed away from, despite her mother’s longstanding Tuesday-morning appointments with Dr. Pearse, her roommate’s wan little crush on her fifty-six-year-old shrink, her film-school friends’ similar dependence on doctors with quiet voices, framed art-exhibition posters, and encouraging, rapacious gazes.
After close to forty minutes of worship, Barrett finally steered her to a cheapish dim sum place on Canal Street where her first embarrassing question was, “Why do you like Lidia so much? How long have you even known her?”
He took a long time to reply. “Your grandfather wasn’t faithful to her. Did you know that?”
She hadn’t but it wasn’t much of a surprise. She doubted that he had been faithful to anyone for more than a few months. How exhausting, she thought. Perhaps this was why she couldn’t write a good script. She lacked the necessary libido, the mercenary appetite to consume whatever beautiful things she encountered. Or else be consumed by them. “You didn’t answer my question,” she said.
“You asked me two questions.” “Yes, if you want to be technical.”
“I’ve known her for a little more than six years. I like her for the same reasons you do. You know what they are.”
“Did you ever date her?”
He shook his head and smiled. “I’m too young for her. She likes older men, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“She likes men, period.”
“Let’s not talk about her. She’s not here to defend herself,” he said, giving her a foxy smile. “You’re the most insecure girl I’ve met in a while who really has no reason to be. You have to stop this, otherwise the next thing you know, you’ll wake up and find yourself voting Republican.”
“That won’t ever happen,” she snorted. “No matter how insecure I get.”
“I swear.” She looked down at the oil droplets on her plate, wanting to smear them with a fingertip. “I have one more question about Lidia. If you’ve been friends with her for six years, why weren’t you ever in my grandfather’s studio before today?”
“You know why.”
She shook her head. “He let people visit him there.”
“Not many, and I wasn’t one of them. I was Lidia’s friend, not his. That’s definitely how he saw it.”
He said this without bitterness. Around age fifteen, she had figured out that her grandfather could have peed on an adoring fan’s foot and been excused for his delightful eccentricity. He had known this too but had rarely been mean-spirited. Just self-indulgent, which was his natural state. Along with a maniacal need to be the best and most.
“He gave me three of his sketchbooks just before the accident,” she told Barrett a few hours later. She knew it was a stupid thing to do, but at the moment she was overflowing with languid generosity. He had done the same things to her that he had on the night of the bacchanal, the results just as terrific. The torturers of the world had it all wrong, she realized. It was earthshaking sex that would make the enemy confess, not having their toenails ripped off. “There’s work in these books that’s unlike any of his other stuff.”
Barrett said nothing for several seconds. When he finally spoke, he had turned onto his side and was squinting at her as if into a bright light. “I’d really like to see them.”
“I’m sure you would. Everyone would. But he was kind of cryptic about what he wanted me to do with them, aside from saying that I should never sell them.”
“April,” he said quietly. “If you’re going to tell me this, I have to think that you want me to see them. Otherwise you’re just being cruel.”
“I don’t mean to be.”
“I wouldn’t steal his ideas, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He paused, putting a warm hand on her naked belly. “Are they here with you? Or back in California?”
She had brought them with her, afraid of leaving something so valuable with her roommate, even though Monica did not know they existed. “I’m not telling,” she whispered, smiling.
“What can I do to get you to show them to me?” he said. “Anything. I’ll do anything you want.”
This was the most heartbreaking thing she had heard in months. His bedroom was dark, but his face glowed, almost radioactive in the charcoal light from one small window above the bed. She could see that he really didn’t lie, just as he had boasted on the night they met. “I need to think that over,” she finally said.
“Did you love your grandfather?” he asked, exasperated. “You don’t always seem to.”
“He was a wolf in lion’s clothing, like you probably are,” she said, suddenly exhausted. “Yes, of course I loved him.”
He shook his head. “I’m a mouse in housecat’s clothing. If I were like your grandfather, I wouldn’t still be living in this shit hole with a growing pile of unsold canvases.”
“Great minds seek out greater minds. You’re on the right track. Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
“Tell me what I can do to get you to show them to me.”
“I really don’t know if it’s a good idea. He didn’t want me to show them to anyone.”
“Whatever you do, you should give them to a museum. They need to be preserved before they start to deteriorate. Depending on how old they are, they might already be at risk.”
“I want you to tell me the real reason why you’re bothering with me. That’s what I want. Am I here only because you’re a huge fan of my grandfather? Tell me the truth.”
He looked at her. “No, that’s not it at all. You have no reason to doubt me.”
“I have no reason to count on you either.”
“I suppose that’s true,” he said slowly. His gray eyes were opaque in his strangely glowing face. “I saw you and I wanted you. That’s all there is to it. You’re lovely and awkward and unkind to yourself. You have even more to learn than I do. I don’t know why you live out in L.A. when most of your friends are here. Hollywood’s such a depressing place. The sun only makes it worse. You can’t even be in a bad mood without feeling guilty. You need to move back east. We might be rude but at least we’re sane. You can write your screenplays here and sell them through an agent.” He pulled her to his chest, his dark fur tickling her breasts. “You must know someone here who can help you out. Your grandfather had to have known a few people who could get things going for you.”
“I’ve never let myself use his name to sell my work. I don’t plan on starting either.”
“But you should,” he said, vehement. “Don’t be so proud. There’s too much competition not to use whatever connections you’ve got. Everyone else does. It doesn’t mean you’re not talented if you ask for help.”
This was the same argument her mother had made many times. It was the argument she had with herself whenever she sold nothing and couldn’t find anything but menial jobs at the movie studios that made the extravagant garbage consistently befouling the local cineplexes. She was stubborn and vain and could not admit that her lunatic’s boat might not get to the top of the mountain, that she might be irrevocably mediocre, despite being the offspring of a genius mother who had sprung from a genius father. Hers seemed on its way to becoming an old dull story, a tale of privilege and not enough early suffering or hungry, single-minded striving or whatever it was that turned a child into a great artist. She persisted in proudly limiting herself, refusing to force her work into production with her grandfather’s clout. He had approved of her restraint but had offered to help her anyway. But then had been pleased when she had refused. “No one helped me,” he had agreed. “I kept working and working and finally a few people started to notice. If you keep working very hard you’ll eventually get what you want and it’ll be worth that much more to you.” So now, as her mother complained, she was too cowardly to ignore this questionable advice and use his connections. What did it matter if she would only be disappointing a ghost?
She pulled away from Barrett and closed her eyes. The pillowcase smelled stale. She wondered how often he changed the sheets. He was less glamorous than she had expected, and a little nicer; he did not seem at all to be the scoundrel Lidia had warned her he was.
“Show me the notebooks,” he whispered. “They’re going to change my life. I’m sure of it.”
“I don’t have them with me.”
“Yes, you do. They’re at Lidia’s. If they weren’t, you would have already told me.”
She sighed. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“All right,” he murmured, resigned. “Sleep on it and we’ll talk in the morning.”
He started softly snoring after a few minutes, but for once she could not sleep. She lay next to him for a long time before creeping slowly from the bed, not wanting to have to explain that she was going back to Lidia’s, that she didn’t think she should show him the notebooks. He seemed painfully like herself—disappointed in the slow progress of his career, the poverty of his chances as they had so far manifested themselves. But there remained that one significant difference between them—she had the great sheltering bulk of her grandfather’s reputation and friendships, if she chose to use them, whereas Barrett did not. Lidia of course had helped him, had gotten him the show in Chelsea where four of his paintings had sold, but so far had been unable to do more for him. As could only happen once, his paintings had arrived on the New York art scene and were now subject to its ruthless whims and upheavals. April also knew that they weren’t yet good enough. She suspected he knew this too. He was serious enough about his work to recognize its limitations.
In her grandfather’s studio he had said that she seemed surprisingly uninterested in the beauty around her. She had told him that she was not uninterested, only used to it. As far as he was concerned, he said, this was the same thing. She had grown impatient and complained that she was just tired and had been sorting through the studio for days, trying to decide with her mother and Lidia if they would be making a mistake if they released the five remaining portraits from A Few of the People I’ve Made Cry to his gallery. She and Lidia thought it had been Martedi’s secret hope, but Beatrice wasn’t at all sure. April had said that after she died, no one would have this kind of conversation about her. She had tried to make it into a joke, but the two older women had looked at her and said that at twenty-five she had no reason to indulge in such perverse self-pity.
Barrett might have been having similar thoughts but he at least knew not to voice them. On the way to the restaurant, he had told her that according to Lidia, Martedi hadn’t made any new work the year before he died. He also hadn’t been able to sleep without pills.
No one had told her this. “I knew he had trouble sleeping sometimes,” was all she could think to say.
“I assumed that he hit rough patches like every other artist, but apparently this last year was the worst of his life.”
“He didn’t kill himself, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she blurted. “He would never have considered it.”
“I never thought that,” said Barrett, taken aback. She felt her face burn with a furious blush and couldn’t meet his eyes. “I just think it’s very sad that we didn’t have one more year of his work before he died,” he said quietly.
She was thinking of this exchange, embarrassed by how ignorant and defensive she must have seemed, when she slunk out of his building and walked the block to a vacant taxi stand. The subway was a block farther and she walked toward it, knowing this was a stupid thing to do alone at four in the morning but also knowing that no one would dare attack her in the mood of self-loathing she had plunged into. She was embarrassed by her cowardly flight from his place to Lidia’s, where she imagined the older woman would answer the bell and look at her with serene disapproval and tell her that she might have been wrong to say that Barrett was unreliable. Or else that she had been wrong about her, the spoiled granddaughter of a great man who at least had not pretended what he did and did not want.
When the subway rumbled into the deserted station, she stepped onto a car where five people were already seated, three of them in maintenance grays, chins tucked against their chests, trying to sleep a little more before starting their unending work. She knew that she would have to show him the notebooks. With little hope, he had been waiting for this.
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, the most recent of which is The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, Ploughshares, and New York Times. She was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and has received the Grace Paley Prize, the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, Society of Midland Authors’ Award, among others. She lives in Pasadena, CA, and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s MFA programs.
Originally appeared in NOR 5