Opening pages of "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" (the complete story is in New Ohio Review, #5 and in my story collection of the same name)
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 floor each 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 be 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 admit 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.