Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
An unsettling coincidence: one day after, full with melancholy and psychologically exhausted, I had begun to read a book on the great terror, a subject that had never interested me and of which I knew only the barest facts, a stoutly-built Russian came through the door of my shop—the only one of his kind I have dealt with. I was short with him: my daughter’s illness, which has only worsened in the months since, had just begun the week before to give signs of its true gravity, and the prospect of her decline loomed heavy, along with the certainty of unspeakable medical bills. To offset the second and in flight from the first I had been taking on extra work. One night, drunk, I had damaged the corner of a canvas. My carelessness was obvious and my attempts to cover it vain, and I received nothing for that job but harm to my reputation. At an auction I had bought a set of rare engravings, believing, I now see, that they would sell because I needed them to, and these lay still in their wrappings in a pile in a corner of the shop, some awaiting late payments from buyers, most with no buyers at all. Finally, there was the matter of the bad check I had gotten for a painting that had been the jewel of my own personal collection, which I had only forced myself to give up with the bitterest regret. “Don’t count on it, pal,” grunted a visiting policeman when I asked about restitution. My debtor, he told me, had enriched himself with a variety of insurance frauds, had used a book of bad checks to furnish himself with all the luxuries unavailable at his destination, and had fled the country on a private plane. A more conservative payment policy would have saved me this last headache; but what I do is based on trust and even sycophancy, and the inconvenienced customer will go gladly elsewhere.
Along with these acute worries, the everyday nuisances of the profession were weighing heavier on me than before, leading me to fantasize, after the shop had closed but before going home, of tropical resorts, violent tantrums, or even suicide. It all looks ridiculous when put in writing. The outsider cannot conceive of the resentment that builds up after years of watching newly-moneyed housewives and other would-be decorators bumble around the showroom with imbecilic squints and frowns, trying desperately to leave a thumbprint on something valuable; they ask the price of whatever catches their eye, oblivious and even hostile to the rising of cost in concert with value; with cheeky impudence the “smart shopper” queries, “How much are you willing to budge on that?” “Budge” in this case means to reduce by at least half. Affronted by any glimpse of the shopkeeper’s dignity, they mutter, “I can buy the same thing for fifteen dollars at Pier One.” I should add that if my gallery’s neighborhood serves a demographic more inclined than others to favor antiques, to be euphemistic, this same group tends to suffer from vices that exert a demand on the market and attract appropriate suppliers. These—young, brash, and bored—malinger on the corner a half-block away, wander in and out of the nearby bars, and sometimes enter the shop too, touching what they cannot afford out of a queer kind of fascination provoked only by their immense uninterest. The buzzer I installed on the door seems rather to have deterred decent customers than to have hassled the unwelcome.
To return to the Russian: he had none of the outward marks of the desirable patron. He was in his late forties, with merciless blue eyes buried deep inside his skull, a buzz-cut, and violet and red ridges of acne across his cheeks. His scuffed leather jacket and white T-shirt did not suggest great wealth. His face was unpleasant and disdainful. When he said he was interested in having some restoration done, I passed him a pamphlet explaining my rates and conditions.
“I have already read this on the webpage,” he said.
“Oh. What can I do for you, then?”
“I want to have a special painting restored,” he said.
“Well, I need to know some details, you know, how big, the medium, what kind of style it’s done in, there are some things that are outside my area of expertise…”
“It’s by the painter Kmita.”
I shivered, and felt as though a dry sock had been shoved into my mouth.
It would be best, however painful and embarrassing, to set down my recollections of the artist Kmita before proceeding with my story. I was an admirer of his. I first saw his work in college, in an anthology of then-contemporary art that I had bought at a used bookstore less from any real interest in the subject than to use up my remaining credit and go home. In fact, I have never cared for modern art, and I hoped for nothing more from the book than a confirmation of my pessimism about the long, slow death of creative genius in the twentieth century. I considered, as well, the need to remain well-rounded in what I had just begun to call my field. In my room, I made a cup of coffee and reclined on the couch beneath a honey-colored cylinder of lamplight. Partway through the book I found, accompanied by an interview with the artist, reproductions of Kmita’s painting The Lonely Girl in various stages of completion. At the article’s end was a full-page print of the finished work, showing a pigtailed brunette, green eyes ringed from sleeplessness or sorrow, naked, examining the grey gape of her vagina in a vanity mirror.
I can’t recall whether I looked at it with apathy or distaste—I did then repeat often, considering it one of my ideas, that art of this sort, putatively innovative, was really just vulgarity paraded as high culture. I was, I think, even proud at my capacity to turn away wearily from whatever was considered shocking—Viennese Actionism or Eleanor Antin’s photos of herself dieting—to remark that it had been done before and to cite lesser-known precedents. I don’t know what swayed me to the painting’s merits. I did afterward, as a professor, champion its creator with arguments anchored in aesthetics and the history of art, all of which seem now to me mere invention, like any thought on art that does not face the most basic, personal questions. A confession, perhaps no less false, but with the virtue of tending heartward, is that I no longer see the painting as such, that it only conveys back to me, by the obscure operations of recollection, those few parts of Marguerite—such as the delicate flare of white-gold, almost dandelion hairs that trimmed the nape of her pale neck—that remain unspoiled in memory.
Marguerite was an art student as well, a painter, although she cared nothing for history and took classes in it only because they were required for her degree. I sat beside her one semester in a seminar on the southern Baroque. Now, because she is gone, because so few pages remain in what was once a vast and even excessive library of memories, these plain recollections shine bright, arousing in retrospection the sum of emotions that developed both in their wake and as their consequence. Her hair I remember best, black but bluish under light, like raven’s feathers, her powdery skin, the under-eyes violet from insomnia, and her plucked brows. I have always enjoyed lectures and note-taking, the unblemished order they bring, however briefly, to a day, and I admired the authority of our stentorian and badly dressed professor, who taught with a full glass of iced vodka sweating on his desk. Marguerite, though, would jostle in her seat, sighing and groaning like a kettle, writing lists of things to do in her binder or picking the polish off her nails. After our marriage, especially when I was unhappy, I would console myself with recalling aloud my good fortune in having wooed her. With a tender and sarcastic glance, desultorily, she would say, “You’re ignorant of your own charms, dear.” But now fifteen years have passed since her death, no one else has come to my side or even near it, and I may conclude that it was she, and not I, who misjudged.
We were fortunate enough to meet the artist one day. He was giving a lecture, sponsored by our local Ethical Society, on the theme of art under communism. He had not yet made his famous proclamations of disgust with humanity, and was in fact well known for his vigorous, as the papers then had it, defense of the downtrodden. Marguerite had written him care of his publisher not long before requesting an interview for the college art magazine; to our surprise, he wrote back inviting us to a reception after the lecture. She looked breathtaking that night, in a long, simple dress with an open back, her hair bunned up with lacquered chopsticks, her feet small in suede heels; and it often struck me later, contemplating what happened to her, or even, for example, the eradication of natural wonder, or mankind’s enduring passion for wrecking architectural marvels and replacing them with monstrosities, that all beauty bears within it the seed of its own destruction; as if, in the nature of things, there were something inherently intolerable about beauty.
We arrived at the lecture early and found the artist in the park across from the Society, sitting on a bench and smoking. He wore a houndstooth blazer and an unbuttoned pink shirt without a tie. Between the nutmeg dome of his tanned, mostly bald head and the prematurely wizened features of his lower face, on a wide and spongy red nose, rested the amber discs of designer sunglasses. Marguerite and I wandered toward him, leaning inward, brushing each other’s cheeks with our noses and deciding what we should say. Before the bench, pronouncing his name, I extended a clammy hand, which he shook and discarded with revulsion. At Marguerite’s more profuse greetings he grinned, showing an inner mouth bright with gold fillings.
“May we sit with you a moment?” I asked.
“I’m actually getting ready to go in. But you will be at the reception later, of course?”
“Of course, of course we will,” said Marguerite.
He raised himself with some difficulty, looking down as though to muster vigor, then limped away. Years later, when his biography appeared, I read that polio, from which he had nearly died in his childhood, had stunted the growth of one of his legs. I assumed that the long and firm embrace Marguerite gave me just then held some significance, of shared joy or of common triumph, as if to say we had “made it,” at least partway—for it was given then that she would soon be a famous painter and I one of art criticism’s magisterial voices, and was this future not foreshadowed in our meeting with the great man? But there is little doubt now that I served solely as a convenience, a means to discharge a sudden burden of confused and even painful feelings that bore no relation to her fondness for me.
We left the park and made our way to the auditorium and took two seats in the second row. The artist, deliberating with one of the Society’s nervous officers, cast us a wink and a grin. Marguerite stared back at him. As the event commenced, the officer, a weary black man of fair complexion, disheveled in his well-worn suit, waddled shyly behind an acrylic lectern in the center of the stage. He did not appear trained in public speaking. He read prepared remarks about Kmita, about communism, and about the contending necessities of understanding and moral rigor, and he extemporized a moment on the historical importance of ethical societies and the especial virtues of our local one. He made a plea for donations. The crowd duly clapped.
He stepped back and sat down in a folding chair along a wall at the back of the stage, resting the flank of his foot on his knee. Kmita came forward and gave a little cough into the microphone. “I would like to begin,” he said, “by observing that artistic activities are necessary not only to the artist, for whom they are an inner responsibility, but to the whole of human society. Art, as we know, predates agriculture; and we can perhaps safely say that art is inseparable from communal life…” Marguerite, with a straightened hand, wedged the black satin of her dress between her thighs, and crossed her legs. The artist talked of his affiliation with a famous theater group that had defected en masse while touring western Europe as emissaries of their country, about his early apprenticeship with the expressionist Jelinski, who was now no longer known and who had been jailed in the nineteen-fifties for distributing pornography—“a pleasant and lucrative side job,” he added with a chuckle. His sentences would begin with a full expulsion of breath, and nearing their end, would speed up, and his accent—normally clear and almost unnoticeable—suffered under the strain. Audience members could be seen leaning discreetly toward their neighbors, begging them to help decipher some incomprehensible phrase. Of course, nothing is ever learned at these engagements, one goes from a sense of duty to the image, rather than the substance, of culture; and the end of it, after a half-hour, was relieving to all present. Kmita was fleeing the stage when the officer detained him with a pinch on the elbow; he turned back in haste, halting the shuffle of the departing crowd, to make a last, obligatory pitch for donations, referring to the society as an “old, distinguished institution,” although he must have learned of its existence only a few days before. The listeners filed gratefully from the building.
The reception was held in a restaurant on the ground floor of the Prince, a brown brick hotel built in the early twenties. Approaching from the east, I looked up and saw the concrete gargoyles that emerge every ten or twelve feet from its highmost floor. We were still students then, used to eating plain noodles, oatmeal, and other bland fare, and we had never seen the inside of a fine restaurant. The lobby, its coffered ceiling supported by stout Ionic columns trimmed in gilt, inspired a timid, almost culpable sensation that the chilly professionalism of the hostess did nothing to assuage. Marguerite proudly mentioned whom we were meeting, and we were led past the bar into a paneled, book-lined room. Kmita was seated with his back to us reading the New York Times.
“Mr. Kmita?” Marguerite said.
“Oh.” He blinked several times and crumpled the paper in his lap. “You may call me Jozef. Please.”
“Has the reception not started yet?” I asked.
“You know, I told them, actually, that I had a headache and I couldn’t go through with it. I’ll be here tomorrow and we’ve rescheduled everything. I wasn’t up to being fêted for the next eight hours by a lot of admirers I’ve never even met. I don’t mean you, of course.”
We were holding the backs of the chairs. He motioned for us to sit with a flick of his flattened hand, apparently annoyed at our reverence. Marguerite asked what he had been reading.
“I can’t stand news, to tell the truth. I was looking at the crossword. But they’re impossible for foreigners, I think, no matter how good one’s English is. I have here a something mouse, ending with a z, six letters. ‘Has a krazy friend,’ it says, with a K. Impossible.”
“Ignatz,” I said. “From a comic strip.”
“Yes, hm. Do you all drink champagne? I have ordered a bottle. They have it on ice in a bucket over there.”
“Of course,” Marguerite said, and giggled.
“I never drink. It’s for you.”
A waiter emerged shortly, his shoe-tips barely showing from beneath the hem of his black apron, retrieved the wet bottle from the bucket and wiped it with a pink serviette. He mentioned a vintner’s name—to me meaningless—in a measured and lapidary way, and poured. The wine grew a fine disc of cream at the glasses’ rim, and tasted of shortbread, iron, and almonds.
“My father was an alcoholic, unfortunately,” said Kmita.
We had oysters, veal medallions, and duck. Kmita was adamant that we share and ordered countless plates, stacking them on top of each other when he’d finished. He discussed the pleasure of eating, the only true pleasure, he said. I have always had a poor tolerance for alcohol, and I could barely sit up by the time the champagne was done. I don’t recall our conversation well. I remember Marguerite’s teeth catching the light from the chandelier overhead—all three of us laughed throughout the night, she with her mouth wide, I with my hand over my face, and Kmita in short, dry giggles. I remember that we mentioned the trip to France we were planning the following summer—the projected culmination of my near-lifelong gallophilia—never taken, sadly. Blood rose in her cheeks when he said, “Well, you’ll have to come stay with me then at my apartment in Cannes.”
Our dinner dragged on until near midnight. When we were left with the bill, I reached for my wallet—a meretricious gesture, as I’d withdrawn only fifty dollars from the bank that morning, having no notion of what our dinner might cost. “Please,” Kmita said, “I’ll sign for it.” He invited us to his room for drinks.
I cannot say whether events such as those that passed later that evening should bear one toward a broader cynicism about the nature or utility of what we call love. I’m certain that Marguerite loved me, for example, before our marriage, when I would rest my head in her lap and let her comb her fingers through my hair, when I still had hair; and if such tender moments were later fewer, love, or something like it, I feel, resurfaced in her bouts of tearful penitence, in her manic need to hold me the night before she died, in her last phonecall. Did she love me that night as well? Who can say? When I examined her eyes, I had an impression of emptiness, as though this were the first in a series of momentary evacuations by which she would prepare herself for eventual departure from the earth.
She reproached me later. I too had discussed the drawbacks of monogamy. I was not indifferent to the idea of three-ways. She hadn’t even heard of these [i]crazy ideas[/i], she said, before we met. This was true: her upbringing had been prim, provincial, and intellectually stifled, and her native defiance could find no better expression, before I knew her, than in constant cursing and a penchant for leather clothes. The only plausible rebuttal would not occur to me until long after, and anyway, who can bear to admit that the fulfillment of a hopeless longing—in my case, that someone should love me, that I should possess something beautiful—will do nothing but inspire further vain and idiotic cravings, that only the misery of having wrecked our happiness will bring to light the truth of its having been?
Our feet recalled the clack of horse hooves on the lobby’s marble floor, then fell silent on the carpet of the stairway. Kmita told an anecdote about a French literary figure; we had never heard of him; but her ignorance did not prevent Marguerite from pinching the bridge of her nose, cackling, and wringing two tears from her clenched, blushing eyelids. Our talk continued over glasses of brandy at a small work-table in the room. I can’t remember what it was about. A dizzy, unearthed feeling, giving way to dread, had overtaken me.
“I’m tired,” Marguerite suddenly offered, stretching her arms behind her head and giving a theatrical yawn, and she stood and began to strip. Her clothes dropped in a pile at our feet and she slipped into the bed, pulling the sheet up under her chin like a child. Her small, white head, with its desperate eyes, stared back at us.
The rest, I think, can be guessed and doesn’t merit the words of which I am incapable anyway. For a long time afterwards the two of us didn’t talk, or rather did so in a language whose factitious ordinariness only mocked communication. I felt sordid and ashamed. Two months later, we found she was pregnant. Then she saw not only my body, but my mere presence, as loathsome, and I removed myself and my things to the unventilated attic, where, on a sheet of plywood placed over the rafters between which filed pink puffs of fiberglass, I would lean over the many books I had assembled for my dissertation, making notes, sometimes startled by the buzz of a tawny wasp.
After Mona’s birth Marguerite no longer ate. She would leave in the evenings, wrapped in an oversized greatcoat, although the long summer was just ending and outside it was warm and moist, with the tail of a grey stocking cap trailing down her back, resentful of inquiries into her mood or destination. I would put the baby to bed and try to read. Incapable of concentration, insensible of anything but the abrupt agony of solitude, I would shut off the lamp and lie in darkness on the sofa, my eyes trained on the lights of the distant bridge seen through the window. If I fell asleep, vile dreams, of missed dates or misplaced objects, would awaken me. Marguerite would return around lunchtime the next day.
After an intervention, as we now say, for which her father even flew to see her, she resumed the pose of mother and wife; but it was clear that life had left her, that she had become, in a sense, superfluous, and that her extinction was inescapable. I mentioned this to friends who enjoined me to keep hopeful. “Just give it time,” I was told. And I was shattered but not surprised when she called me one afternoon, a very fine fall one when a leafy breeze blew through the town, in tears, repeating, “I’m sorry,” telling me that I must tell her family she was sorry, that she loved me, that she loved Mona, and so on. I screamed into the phone. I believe I felt a firm tone might drive her to compose herself, as happens often in movies; but she only redoubled her apologies and sobs, and after a moment she hung up. She jumped, I found out that night, from the landing of a highrise where she had lived with roommates her first year of college. We used to sit there, sometimes from midafternoon to daybreak, drinking wine and smoking; and although the bluing of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky, and their gradual return to grey at daybreak, were quite beautiful, I could not look down for fear of a debilitating vertigo that frequently recurs to this day.
The Russian’s neighborhood lay along the crest of a ridge that loomed over the lights of the downtown. The long rows of extravagant and even whimsical two- and three-story homes that bordered the main road had once housed the richest families in the city, but the area had since fallen out of favor. A second set of residents, disdaining the upkeep of the elaborate gables and pillared porches, had instead filled the yards with satellite dishes, bright plastic playsets, and concrete birdbaths; and now a third group had set about restoring it all. The Russian’s house had been built in a Bavarian style, with mullioned windows and a turret, and lay in the center of a rectangular yard high with unmown grass.
I had agreed to visit him in the evening, to see the painting, to discuss what restoration might be done, and to give an estimate of fees. I could not but think, as I left the car, of the other painting that I had ruined: an artistically null piece, but nonetheless—or consequently—worth a fortune.
The Russian’s knocker was in the form of a golden gavel, and gave a bang when dropped. “Hello,” he said on opening the door. He showed me to his living room, which looked like a hunting lodge, with a zebra-skin rug and a colossal stuffed bear. On every flat surface lay piles of papers, each tending outward and threatening to fall. He offered me a scotch, of which I was suddenly and desperately desirous.
“I suppose you are familiar with Kmita’s work?” he asked.
“Very much. I began following his career almost twenty years ago. My wife and I met him once.”
“I knew him well. It has always amused me, the situation of the Slavs, Russians and Poles, especially, but others too. They can’t stand each other, they’ve fought for centuries, but in any big city in the world you find them living side by side, as though doomed, wherever they land, to take back up their timeless bickering.” He took a sip of his drink, and spit a cube, arrested halfway between his lips, back into the glass. “We met in Paris. My brother and I had a business there, making false passports. Kmita didn’t need them, he was already well-known, but he would come to us asking for help for his young lovers. He was a talented linguist—probably because in other respects he was lacking in culture and had no real interests beyond his work. You could see him in those days in a café with a dark-haired Romanian or Greek, tensing his brows, gesturing, and opening and closing a dictionary while his companion rested her chin in her hand or smoked. A month later he would be chatting her up fluently, and not long after she would be gone. ‘Oh, her,’ he’d say, as if struck with amnesia, ‘I’m not sure what happened to her.’ These girls would attach themselves to him and out of compassion he’d try to get them papers or a job, but soon they bored him and they’d disappear. Would you like another drink?”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“We lost touch for some years. I fell in love, you see. And my wife—dead now, unfortunately—was a brilliant woman with a bad job cleaning apartments. And she hated the French and refused to learn their language; in fact, she held it in the highest contempt. She used to imitate it, making a sound like a sparrow’s call and a little like a moaning dog, and she would get a look on her face”—he cocked his head, letting his jaw hang slack, and stared into his brows with wide, sad eyes. “She never learned to say anything but vulgarities. She was the one who wanted to come here. She had an aunt who was well-established, a doctor—she’s in her nineties now, still alive—they were close and wanted to be together, but getting over here had proved impossible. Before we met, I mean.”
“What about Kmita?”
“Oh. I think he was happy in Paris, but it’s a fact, you must know, that all artists are shamelessly greedy. He did become a kind of local celebrity there, after a while, in bohemian circles, but I think he felt he would never be recognized in all his greatness—he was not humble about this—until he became famous in New York. And so one day, without warning, he called me—he must have got my number from my brother Sergey, who had stayed in Europe—saying, ‘I want to come to America, I must come as soon as possible,’ and so on. So we arranged it for him, and in fact he stayed with Katyusha and me for a year afterward, as he didn’t yet have an American agent and was personally incapable of signing a lease or any other practical undertaking.”
I saw the sun had set. I thought of Mona, who had been napping when I left. She would have gotten up; she was probably watching television in her room. I had left nothing for her to eat, thinking the meeting wouldn’t last long. “May I see the painting?” I asked.
“Of course,” the Russian said. He excused himself with a nod and left down a hallway. I heard the rifling of papers, the thud of moved objects, and a chain of indecipherable expletives. He returned with a packet under his arm, about two feet by four, in a brown wrapper tied with twine.
“Can I look at it?” I asked.
He tore the covering without speaking and put the painting in a corner on a tattered armchair. Its subject was a woman reclining, as though in reference to Titian, along a scarlet tapestry. She was propped on her bent elbow. Her yellow hair fell in two arcs, one that covered her hand and one that spilled across her face, and her half-closed eyes looked down onto her breast. The tension in her abdomen indicated a raised upper leg, but I could only guess: the entire right half of the painting had been destroyed. The bare threads of the canvas were all that was left, streaked with spare remnants of color.
“Was it even finished?” I asked.
“Yes, but it was vandalized.”
“I’m not sure what I can do with it,” I said. “This wouldn’t be a restoration, really. You’re asking me to reproduce, in the style of a master, an entire half-canvas without any clue as to what it might have contained.”
“Well, that’s not completely true. I won’t insult you by observing that this piece refers to a long tradition of seductresses and odalisques you should be more than familiar with. And anyway, it’s a painting based on a photograph, and I have that photograph in my possession.”
“Can I see it?”
The Russian paused to stare at me.
“How would you describe your memory?” he asked.
I do not think we can judge such things accurately. I wanted, however, to see the photo, to better know what had once seized the mind of that painter who had not ceased to preoccupy me for nearly twenty years; and I realized, my worry giving way to daring, that the renown, let alone the commission, of restoring so great a piece would be enormous, enough to carry me through my present troubles and even pave the way for more prestigious work in the future.
“It’s good, I think.”
“You see,” said the Russian, opening a cabinet from which he withdrew a slide projector, blue under a sheet of dust, “I have a strong sense of privacy. Or really something more than privacy. A conviction that a life, but my life in particular, as it is the one I know best, is in its essence unknowable, and that any gesture of confidence expresses contempt for its secret, which cannot disclosed but only cheapened and disfigured. A philosophy of mine. And this photograph is integral to my secret. Even to show it to you will be painful, but necessary, I now believe, if I’m to get back, even imperfectly, something I ache for and which I rashly destroyed. And so I can show you the photo, to help you, but I refuse to lend it to you, not even a copy.”
He had arranged the projector and aimed it at a white wall, on which appeared, just after, a butter-yellow square. He clicked through several slides of buildings and vacation scenes, showing the Taj Mahal, the Salzburg cathedral, and the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby in Edinburgh, then settled on the model for the painting. Her legs were spread. Her eyes, looking down in the painting, faced forward in the photograph and were misty with humiliation. Her raised foot rested on an end table placed flush with her mattress, and her lower leg was curled up beneath her. From the bottom right corner of the frame, a dark, hairy arm with a gold and diamond watch stretched upward, pronated. The thumb and pinkie finger were spreading the two soft ridges of fat inside her thighs, and three fingers were midway inside her.
“My wife,” the Russian said.
I had never seen an obscene image of a dead person. The sensation is hard to describe. I felt thrown against the poverty of the mind, which can’t take account of what it knows to be true or free itself from its instinctual compulsions. I felt her draw, extending, like all pornography, an invitation to join in, to abandon my concerns, which seemed contrived, for an animal longing contrary to reason. That she was dead and the invitation worthless clashed with what I saw before me, with the eyes that stared from the wall, exactly like living eyes; and she seemed to rebuke me for merely looking back, as if in looking I had spurned her, condemning her to a half-life like that of ghosts, who gaze on the world’s workings but are mute and unable to participate. Aversion to the dead, ordinarily quite natural, thus comes to be treason, the neglect of a fellow creature in her cell, a refusal of acknowledgement—this is why her face has weighed often, unforgotten, in my thoughts.
“I hope this hasn’t offended you,” the Russian said.
“What happened to her?” I asked.
“My wife, as you can see, was small, and I always felt she was somehow too light for this world. Too airy, as if she couldn’t get a foothold. Even I couldn’t really grasp her, I always felt that I was reaching after her without really touching. This held a great deal of charm for me early on, to possess someone so fragile, like a precious shell. But the very slight existence granted her diminished over time, and when this photo was taken, she had already become almost unrecognizable.” The Russian smacked his lips, as if to swallow his sorrow, and blinked through swelling tears. “The cause of her death… Excuse me.” He rested his face in his elbow and began to sob. “A heart problem. She had a very weak heart. I believe that living didn’t suit her.”
He spent several minutes composing himself, breathing deeply and running his fingers and thumbs around his eyebrows, temples, and cheeks. I stared at the mounted deerhorns, the books in the shelves, and a pair of savage masks, both bright red and grimacing, that hung on each side of the window.
“Will you do it for me?” he asked.
I burbled about my commission, which I had forgotten to mention beforehand.
“The price is of no concern,” the Russian said.
“Well, then, I can begin whenever—”
“Take it now, please.”
The Russian put his hands in his pockets and turned a brooding gaze toward the floor. I took the painting under my arm and went away. I had just put it in the back seat of my car when I heard a throaty, trebled cry. I slammed the door and ran back to the house. The Russian was in his kitchen, standing shirtless before a stove, its lit jets blowing blue flames, holding a brass wand with a blackened tip. On his torso, like leopard-spots, were dark and livid scars, and among them fresh white wounds that had just begun to blister.
“I alarmed you,” the Russian said. “I should have waited till you were gone.”
I wanted to speak, to ask if he was all right or something equally out-of-place. He pulled on a towel that was tucked behind the handle of the oven door and wiped his sweating arms and the tears that had gathered in the wings of his nose, and he blew his nose in it and threw it to the floor. He let out a long breath and sat on a wooden stool, wedging his feet into the rungs. With his index finger he pressed down on the pad of his thumb, wrapped his teeth around the protruding yellow nail, and began to chew.
“I have never forgotten her. At night I lie beside a pile of blankets and pretend she is by my side; I long to see her again, but when I look at her picture, there is only remorse. Who can admit the dead are really gone? I see her eyes in the photograph and am filled with inexhaustible shame. ‘ Come here,’ she seems to say; it doesn’t matter that I don’t know how; I look at her again, and she scolds me. And I cannot justify my staying here. There is no more pleasure in life. These things you see, my trophies, my papers, are as air—the estate of a person vanished. I keep them for appearances, to tell myself I am still here, as if these vestiges of habit might once again take root, and I will forget everything from before. But if, without her, I do not wish to live, still nothing has softened the shock of death. I detest life; it inspires no allegiance in me. I don’t care for children, I am unmoved by the fate of the earth, and that I should continue to get up every day, putting on clothes and later taking them off, strikes me as a deficiency of character. But it is so terrible to be done with it, knowing, in the boundless span of time, that I shall never have anything else.”
The Russian looked down into his hands, which he was rubbing one against the other. “There’s my story,” he said. “You’ve heard it, you’ve taken the commission, and our business is concluded. I’m no longer in the mood for company. Please leave me now to my mortification.”
As I walked down the hall, I reflected on the brevity of happiness and the solidity of suffering; joy, I said to myself, was only an interim stage by which misery came into flower. I walked out the door and into the blue, starred darkness, and the Russian burdened the night with screams.