Prose issue 121 brings you the long and the short of life. From birth to death, youth is constantly redefined. Michelle Elvy and James Mills take you on a journey of life: rebirthed.
Let me tell you, child, the story of how your father became your father.
Not the story of how his sperm crashed into my egg, how mad passion made a sweet sticky union that turned two into one and then in a split second became three. That is a good story, too, but this one is better.
We were driving down Highway 1, me at the wheel and him dialing the radio. Windows down, heatwave hitting us hard.
Supertramp: Give a Little Bit.
He turned it up, lit a cigarette, put it to my lips like he always did, his sweet salty fingers so close I wanted a nibble. When I turned my head slightly and said No he looked almost hurt. Then I said the thing I’d been hiding for two weeks: I’m pregnant.
I couldn’t read his face, and the telling of this simple truth was much like the rest of our relationship: unplanned and hot. I saw the slight slump of his shoulders that accompanied his bent head, his black Oriole’s cap shielding his eyes. And then he stubbed out his Camel unfiltered, exhaled long and slow. He took the pack from his t-shirt pocket, turned it over, studied it as if it might reveal some magic wisdom: Run away! Marry her! Find another girl!
Then he pulled the remaining cigarettes from the pack, and, one by one, tossed them out the window. Turned Supertramp louder, cupped his hand round my sweaty neck, and grinned.
Michelle writes from a sailboat in New Zealand, where equal parts cynicism and hope keep her afloat and writing brilliantly.
When William Waterman was an old man he decided to do abstracts.
“A new period,” he announced to Caitlin, “One more before I die.”
Caitlin was a very capable curator at the university’s museum of fine arts. She also served admirably as Waterman’s biographer, personal secretary, and lover, the latter designation having become public only after the purely administrative associations with the artist had fully ripened. Fortyish Caitlin was long, lean, and prone to slip easily into a dancer’s first position, with legs straight, body upright and lifted, and feet splayed in the classic turnout.
Caitlin committed herself to the idea of helping to create, rather than simply document art history on a rainy Saturday morning in autumn. Streetlights still glowed when she packed her yellow rental truck. By late that night the rain stopped, and she was moved in with the artist. An opportunity, Caitlin thought, to help catalog the life of a man who would, soon enough, be recognized as one of the great contemporary masters.
“Five major periods,” she was fond of saying. “Just like Picasso.”
For three months Caitlin spent her evenings and weekends researching the artist’s life and art. At night, when the old man painted, she slept in the spare bedroom decorated with his early work.
One night in early December he touched her. They were sitting side-by-side sipping a bold Syrah in front of a small fireplace that whispered warmth. Off and on Caitlin’s thoughts settled like a dragonfly on the taste of the wine. Mostly, however, she thought of Waterman’s eyes, which were that northern European shade of pale blue and twinkled as if age had no power over light.
“I don’t feel old,” Willie Waterman said suddenly, his voice breaking like a gentle wave over silence.
Caitlin smiled and looked away. She tried to think of the differences between the Willie Waterman who sat beside her and a younger version of the man, like the one in the photograph on the mantle: a summer day a history ago when the artist, fresh off the tennis courts and wearing white shorts and a polo shirt, was radiantly virile. The differences, she concluded, were more superficial than not. These were differences of texture and form, but not of substance.
“I don’t think of you as old, Willie,” she said. “I think of you as an artist.”
Precisely then, as if to underscore the word artist, Waterman gently stroked her face with a single finger that felt like a natural bristle brush, well-used but soft and smelling of paint.
“I could stay with you tonight,” Caitlin said calmly. “I could wait until you finish your work.”
“I’m old,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter, Willie. It really doesn’t.”
Willie Waterman’s bedroom was musty and cluttered with empty canvases and half-finished paintings. Clothes, paints, and books were piled in heaps.
“Music?” he asked nervously as a boy.
“Perfect,” she said, unbuttoning her silk blouse, which glowed pearl-like in the soft light from a single candle.
“Coltrane? Miles? Bird?” he asked uncertainly.
“Anything, Willie,” she said, her smile turning almost but not quite to gentle laughter. “Something cool and slow that doesn’t stop.”
“That’s the problem,” Willie Waterman said.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
Caitlin shook her head and walked across the room to him. He stood perfectly still and let her open his shirt and unbuckle the old leather belt. He let her whisper while he closed his eyes and smelled her scent, which was sweeter and softer than turpentine.
“No, Willie,” she said, her lips close as air to his ear. “Nothing ever has to stop.”
Over the next two months nothing did stop. Not art. Not sex. Willie slept less and painted more, and he and Caitlin made love with increasing frequency and steady innovation. She was more than a little surprised by the discovery that neither his abilities nor endurance were dramatically sacrificed to age. To be sure, there might be a need for a longer period of recovery, and on occasion Caitlin resorted to the more exotic variations of foreplay, but once the canvas was stretched, to use one of Willie’s favorite metaphors, the brush was ready to paint.
“You’re a magnificent lover, Willie.”
“It’s you, Cait. It’s all because of you.”
In the early hours of each morning Willie painted with the fury of youth. In the first works from this period his dancers appeared as if in the wings: tentative, waiting. As the month progressed, so did the relationship of the painted figures, which moved from the stillness of their waiting to the leaping of a dynamic pas de deux.
“What energy!” exclaimed Caitlin as she presented the artist with his midmorning cup of coffee. “What…youth!”
“I’ll show you youth.” The old painter wrestled Caitlin onto his bed and had his way with her while Pablo the cat rubbed against her thighs, calves, and toes.
As the weeks wore on toward spring, Caitlin remained an encouraging partner. Willie, meanwhile, became more emboldened in both his art and lovemaking. The earlier dashes of a pale shade or two of tint punctuated with bold black boundaries turned into explosions of primary color that bore only the most modest vectors of order. His amours followed suit.
“Turn this way,” Willie urged. “Now here!” His voice rose above Caitlin’s increasingly familiar refrain:
“Willie, we really should rest awhile.”
“You want to stop?” His voice suggested conflicting emotions of narcissism and hurt.
“Of course not,” Caitlin’s voice revealed her own warring wants. “Remember what I said? Nothing ever has to stop.”
Nothing did stop. Nothing, that is, until Caitlin jerked awake late on a rainy Saturday morning in May and knew that something had to stop. Her vision was blurred from lack of sleep, and her body ached from Willie’s reckless acts of sexual bravado. Another morning gone. Her own life nothing now but a dull throb. Willie, meanwhile, was absorbed with a grand pas de trois featuring masked nudes, painted to the accompaniment of John Coltrane’s maniac dissonance.
Caitlin summoned the energy to raise her voice. “Willie. Could you please turn that down? I have a splitting headache.”
“I’ll show you splitting!” The artist joyfully exclaimed, bare-chested and eager, brush in one in hand and palette in the other.
Time and routine tossed aside a few more weeks, and Caitlin grew increasingly weary and bored. She viewed her life as a smudge-like blur sketched with a dull pencil of physical and emotional servitude. Dark shadows and a chronic puffiness encamped beneath her eyes. Her elegant posture and turnout all but vanished.
One particularly grim afternoon, after a long night of purgatorial sex, Caitlin took a walk through a chilling rain. She thought of art and life, and wondered about the differences between the two, and she only knew for certain that one was fragile and the other fleeting.
“Damn it, Willie,” she said aloud through the splattering rain, “why do you have to be so old?”
The following morning Caitlin entered the studio dressed in loose-fitting slacks and baggy sweater, her wet hair done up in a towel. “Willie?” she puzzled, “What have you done with your dancers?”
Instead of the usual cup of black coffee, she offered the artist a calming potion of chamomile tea.
“My dancers? What do you mean?” Willie made a face as he analyzed the strange brew.
“I was so… hopeful,” Caitlin said, her voice laden with apparent concern. “I thought we were going to see so much…life. So much vigor. What happened?”
“Oh, Willie, I don’t want to discourage you, of course, but something happened.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your dancers. They look static. They look so…old. ”
Willie turned toward the painting and said nothing. He slumped. His bare chest, which only a moment earlier was broad and inflated with life and youthful energy, now fell like a wind-quelled kite.
“Don’t worry, Willie,” Caitlin said sympathetically, patting the old man lightly on a sagging shoulder. “Don’t you worry at all.”
For the next month Willie nursed mild pneumonia and remained bedridden. The door to his studio was closed, and the smell of turpentine lingered only in memory.
“I’m dying,” he rasped.
“Don’t be silly, Willie. It’s a temporary condition. I’ll nurse you back to health and you’ll be fine. You’ll be your old self again. ”
“That’s right. Old.”
Caitlin, meanwhile, moved to the guest bedroom and slept nine hours a night. “Recovering,” she told herself.
“I need you,” Willie pleaded, his voice rising from his bed in little more than a hoarse whisper.
“I’m here for you, Willie. You know I am.”
Caitlin contracted a caterer: Two meals a day. Fruits, vegetables, and chicken stock. And not one drop of coffee, no matter how much he pleads. Arrangements were made for daily visits by a nurse. Most nights, Caitlin sat by the old man’s bedside for thirty minutes and offered him sips of chamomile tea.
“You’re never here anymore,” Willie said one night, gasping out the accusation between strained attempts to clear his lungs. “You’ve abandoned me.”
“Don’t be silly, Willie. I’m working very hard cataloging your works. Your place in history is very important to me, as it should be to you. And besides, I do have my own life, you know. ”
Caitlin rushed like a sprinter back into her own life. During the first month of Willie’s crisis, in frantic haste to recover her temporarily lost self, she volunteered to lead a museum fund-raiser, traveled to a major conference, and authored notes for a new exhibit. As if this was less than adequate, she attended dance classes twice a week, power walked three days a week, and practiced yoga on the remaining two. Her color returned, and her turnout was never more thoughtful. Caitlin’s confidence was quickly restored.
“We should concentrate on the autobiography, Willie,” she said when the artist showed signs of a slow recovery. “We must work together to fully catalog your work. Catalog your… memories. And you must take it easy from now on, dear. You must avoid all rigors. ”
“Rigor mortis,” the old man said. “My only remaining rigor.”
Caitlin laughed off the remark, and tousled the old man’s hair. “You’ll feel better soon. It’s almost spring.”
Indeed, a week later spring was full of itself. Snow retreated to small shadowy enclaves. Little yellow flowers leapt from storefront boxes and neighborhood gardens.
“I am so alive,” Caitlin sang out on her way to a rigorous hour of yoga. All around her young couples held hands and openly embraced. Coats were shed, and the dark, heavy roundness of winter was replaced with delicate lines, sensuous contours and bright colors. Willie’s middle period, Caitlin observed.
That night she found the old man sitting up in his bed reading a book of Japanese death poems.
“Willie?” Caitlin sat down on the bed and ran her fingers through the artist’s thick mane of skull-white hair. “I believe I’ll be offered a promotion. Any day now. You’ll be so proud of me.”
“I’m happy for you,” Willie said in a voice that wavered. His eyes continued to track a twelfth-century death poem.
“Willie? Let’s make love tonight. Let’s celebrate.”
“I’m too old,” Willie said. “Never again.”
“I’ll help you. It will be good for you. Don’t worry. I’ll do all the work.”
“Too old,” Willie Waterman repeated, and he closed the book of poems.
Another month passed and things, thought Caitlin, were going suddenly awry. Willie was still bedridden. Her new job was turning into a prosaic drag of meetings and paperwork. She lingered on plateaus in both yoga and ballet, and recently a young skateboarder derided—or complimented, she wasn’t sure which—her power walking form. On top of all of this, the celebratory atmosphere of the season led to ever more frank displays of student affections. “I work,” she could be heard to whisper under her breath after passing yet another in a series of arms, legs and torsos entwined in patterns that resembled the endless Celtic knots that were all the rage in tattoo parlors, “but where is my art?”
Stunned suddenly by a welling sadness that she could not ebb, Caitlin turned away, her eyes diverted down toward a sidewalk glowing white beneath the sun, and she hurried off campus. Anywhere. It didn’t matter. Just off, away, a quick escape from all that youth, a flight into the heart of some darker, urban edge defined by blight and poverty and everything that was lovelorn and without hope, including the old man directly in front of her who stumbled, the grip on his walker failing him at the moment of his greatest need.
“Are you O.K.?” she asked, knowing full well that he was not, and waiting not even long enough for his look of quick shock at the blurred realization that somebody might actually give a shit to fade before she asked him another question, and this one having to do with the nearest place to buy alcohol.
“What?” the old man asked, the jaundiced face surrendering to the dark opening of his mouth, foul and vacant save for a pale tongue. “What?”
“Wine,” she said. “Beer. Whisky. Anything. It doesn’t matter.”
The old man looked blank and uncomprehending for a moment, but then he smiled a grin of some long ago remembering and turned slowly ninety degrees, giving his head a subtle shake and pointing with his old man’s pointy chin. “That way,” he croaked. “One block…on the corner.”
The corner. A block away stood forgetfulness, salvation, solace from age and its sad, sad longing.
Caitlin power walked her way to the fading neighborhood store in the faded neighborhood and surveyed the wine selection: cheap and cheaper, red and white. She picked the cheapest red and then sought the shelter of a small table by the side of the store, placed there, she surmised, as some desperate antidote to Starbuck’s, some last ditch attempt to lure passing strangers with the promise of a cheap cup of coffee sipped slowly at a sidewalk table.
Caitlin unscrewed the top and drank. She drank only a little less quickly than the bottle would empty, and she cursed wildly at time’s slow poison and the god who dared invent it.
“The art, the mind, the beauty,” she sobbed. “Destroyed. Dead within a decade. No more Willie.” Everything, both art and time, to its own sure end. And at that moment, a feral kitten, its orange and white coat ragged with fleas and its belly distended from worms, feebly came closer, begging for a scrap of food. But Caitlin only wept with a fury, such a violent fury, and drank until her face and shirt were dripping red, and then she heaved the empty bottle at the kitten. In a hailstorm of shattering glass the kitten ran.
“Just let it go. Let every fucking thing go,” she cried. Her weeping eased to the quiet purr of a kitten in better times. She applied lipstick and patched her runny mascara, then pushed herself away from the little table and walked for a while up and down the sidewalk, a block here, a block there, calling, “kitten, kitten,” but the kitten was gone, and would always be gone. She knew that the kitten was forever gone and would never come again with its beauty and youth, nor would art itself, which is thought of as enduring but in truth lasts no longer than its witness.
Darkness came, not to comfort, but, to envelop like a soiled cape as Caitlin walked up the hill to the bus. She sat alone and watched: horribly fatigued business men and women frantically yelling into cell phones, teenagers plugged like appliances into iPods, an old woman clutching her net bag full of apricots the color of a pale sun.
I’m sorry Willie, Caitlin thought.
She exited on State Street and purchased a pound of Costa Rican coffee. Back on the bus she counted the stops.
“Willie, I have news!”
The apartment was dark. Pablo meowed pleadingly by his empty food bowl.
“Willie? I have news. Great news.”
Caitlin fed the cat then hurried to the stereo. A moment later Miles Davis jabbed, hooked, and uppercut every available audio nerve. Then she rushed into the dark studio and saw Willie motionless on his day bed.
She knelt by the bedside and embraced the old man hard, pressing herself against the still form shrouded in a woolen blanket.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly the dark mound rustled.
“I’m dying,” the old artist whispered. “Let me go in peace.”
“Willie. Listen to me. I was wrong. I was too…hasty.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your dancers, Willie. Your new works.”
“What about them?”
“They’re wonderful. Masterful.”
“You said they were lifeless. Old, you said.”
“But only because it was so new, Willie. So courageous. And like anything new it must be pondered. It must be given time.”
“Yes, time. And exposure. It must have exposure.”
“Willie, I took photographs.”
“Yes, Willie. Photographs. I showed them. I showed them all around. I sent them to New York. I sent them all the way to New York.”
“You sent them?”
“Yes, to everybody. I sent them to everybody who is anybody. ‘Tell me what you see,’
I said. Oh, I sent them to the best, Willie. The best.”
“The very best.”
“What did they say?”
“They said they were alive. They said they were brilliant and young.”
Monday’s morning light, which slipped unannounced through the bedroom window, tickled Caitlin’s face and eyes. She was in no rush to go to the museum. Later, maybe. Or not at all. A death in the family, perhaps. Or better still a strange disease, undiagnosed and of unknown duration.
“Good morning, Pablo.” The cat purred and kneaded her tummy, every muscle, nerve, and fiber of which was still reeling from the unprecedented lengths of Willie’s nightlong explorations of texture and form.
Caitlin closed her eyes for a moment and listened to Coltrane pull note after note from all the world’s emptiness. Then she struggled from the bed, bathed, and applied soothing ointments.
“What energy, Willie!” exclaimed Caitlin as she presented the happily working artist with his midmorning cup of coffee from freshly ground and darkly roasted beans that smelled of the rain forest. “What…youth!”
“I’ll show you youth,” said the old painter, at which point he wrestled Caitlin onto his day bed and had his way with her while Pablo rubbed against her thighs, calves, and toes.
During a moment of relative calm, while Willie caught his breath and made subtle positional adjustments, Caitlin opened her eyes and studied the completed painting that rested on the tall French easel in the center of the room. Two figures evolved out of ethereal washes of color.
“It’s beautiful, Willie. It really is.”
“Two Dancers, I call it,” Willie said. “You and me.” Light reached in through the window and outlined the artist in a white corona.
“And they’ll dance forever, won’t they?” Caitlin asked, battening down against the returning storm of Willie’s attention. “They’ll never stop.”
“Never,” Willie mumbled in mid-contortion.
“For a while there I thought they had to stop,” Caitlin said, her voice quiet and far off.
“But they didn’t, did they?”
“I told you,” Willie Waterman said. “Nothing ever has to stop.”
James writes from all over the world, where he teaches in developing and politically sensitive countries.