Artist at Work by William Reese Hamilton

Make no mistake, this is a love story, however badly we might have played it.

My phone rang sometime after three in the morning, hauling me out of a deep erotic dream. I had been up late editing a raw noir novel in my cramped Westside flat -- trying to hammer gold out of lead, my boss called it -- and it had drained me. The voice on the line was the same as in my dream. I hadn't heard her voice in five years and all she said was, "Hi," but one syllable was enough.

"It's been a while, Fé. Long while."

"I've been thinking of you, Charlie Frank," she whispered.

The irony brought a wry smile. "So you wrote on the postcard. Three years ago, was it?"


"Not quite. Sardinia. What brings you back to the States?"

"I came to be alone. I'm trying to work." Then, as if that tasted strange, "Paint." "But I heard it was going so well for you in Europe."

"I learned some things."


"Eventually you've got to move on."

"So you're back."

"I need you," she said, the words hanging a moment, as always enticing. "Your help. Your good opinion."

"I don't know, Fé. My tastes run pretty academic."

"I trust you, Charlie," she said. "You know that. Always." And then without waiting, "Can you come tomorrow night?"

"Where's that?"

"Connecticut. You do have a car?"

"Sort of. A street Beetle."

She directed me to an obscure mill town somewhere northwest of Hartford. Carsonville was just barely on the map. I left work early the next day, trying to avoid the clogged highways. Still, by the time I got there through the Friday traffic, it was almost dusk. Most of the time I had spent working my way up from the coast along a polluted valley of industrial ghost towns. Their purpose gone, they lingered on in a kind of half-death, surrounded by the waste they had generated long ago. In Carsonville, a single brick factory on the hill loomed over the rows of workmen's cottages. Out of Dickens perhaps, I was thinking. Or Upton Sinclair. The sky flushed red at sunset, violently enough so I felt I should have ashes falling on me. What an unlikely place to find Fé. How many times had I passed her parents' place on Fifth Avenue, thought of her wandering along some lonely, exclusive shore at dawn, where only a privileged few were allowed?

The streets were narrow there, poorly lit, laid out in that time when a single company could dominate an entire town. But things were no longer very busy in Carsonville. What perhaps had once been the company store was now a grubby little bodega, held open this late in the vain hope someone might still drop by for a Coke or a pack of Camels. An old half-lit neon sign in the window still advertised "Cerveza Schaefer."

"You know where this street is?" I asked, holding up a scrap of paper with her address on it. "Cómo?"
"Lincoln." He pointed up toward the factory.

The big rusting cars parked along the streets were as out-of-scale as they were out-of-date. "For Sale" and "Se Vende" signs rose from the tall weeds on cramped front lawns. A few scruffy kids played catch in the failing light to little piping calls of “ye" and "Mara," but I doubted they could see the ball anymore. Some teen machos had been drawn like moths to a just-lighted streetlamp, heavy gold chains glinting around their necks. Men sat on front stoops, beer cans in their hands. Cigarettes glowed in the shadows, occasionally the flutter of a TV screen, and some distant salsa drifting from a boom box far below. Most homes were dark. It took me another half-hour to find her place.

The cottage was small and commonplace like the rest. Set on the last street under the brick factory. But there she was, waiting for me in the doorway, framed by the bright light inside. It took me a moment to recognize her. The dark hair had been cropped short and bleached, so in silhouette she could have been mistaken for a boy, wearing overalls and a white T-shirt. She looked slimmer, taller than I remembered. But what I noticed most was her neck. The short hair made her head small, her neck long and elegant. Modigliani, I thought. I loved Modigliani. I folded myself out of the Volkswagen and reached back into my cooler for two bottles of well-chilled wine.

"anyone lived in a pretty how town," I called out to her, my arms reaching wide, a bottle in each hand.

The greeting was a little ritual I had started with her in college. When we saw each other, I called out e. e. cummings to her. And at first she laughed and called back, "anyone's any was all to her."

Of course, I had never been even close to "all to her," so she soon shortened her reply to "anyone's any."

"Oh, Charlie, do we have to be so damn literary?" Immediately I knew I'd played her fool. But I wouldn't quit.

"C'mon," I urged.



"anyone's any," she mumbled, screwing up her mouth like the child who didn't like saying her prayers.

She hugged me in spite of it, perhaps because of it, pulling my head to her breast in a soft, sisterly way. The contact sent a shiver through me, and because I was a step below her, made me feel like a child. So I pulled away and stepped up beside her, where I was half a head taller. And we entered the bright room that way, the two bottles of wine clanging together as we embraced. I didn’t move to kiss her.

She looked washed out in the sudden blaze of light, but I saw it was merely that she wasn't wearing makeup. Only the corners of her lips were darkened by pigment, and when she smiled, the thinnest line along her upper lip, just where it met her teeth.

"Still sucking on paint brushes," I guessed. I couldn't help myself. I looked shamelessly into those dazzling sea-green eyes. Then turned away.

The front room was chalk white -- ceiling, walls, floor, trim. As if the same great whitewashed roller had passed over everything, narrowly avoiding the windowpanes. A white enamel-topped table, four white folding chairs. White pull-down shades in the windows. A white floor lamp throwing out what seemed excessive wattage. The brightness threw me off balance, made me feel suddenly vulnerable, as if I had just stepped onto a stage.

"How long have you been here?" I asked. "In this cottage."

"Six months, maybe eight."

"You might try furniture."

"For what?"

"Easy chair would be nice."

"Easy?" She didn't seem to like the word. "I don't spend much time here."

I took the wine into the kitchen and put it

in the freezer. There was a six-pack of Bud in the refrigerator. How quaint, I was thinking, probably for some blue-collar down the street. But I was also very thirsty after my long, hot drive.

"May I?"

"Please." I popped one and gulped it in a single long pull.

"Do you really have to be so Spartan?" I asked. I looked into the other small room. A single metal bed, a second-hand bureau, stacks of books on the floor. And there, hung over the bed like a crucifix, the only piece of art in the house. I recognized it immediately. Dark gray paint on plaster. An exquisitely stylized Mayan jaguar glyph. Colón would always be with her, I thought. Colón, who had lured her into the netherworld of New York to leave small jewels of graffiti in unreachable places. Colón, with the straight black hair and cinnamon skin, from whom she had learned the power of iconography. I asked if I might use her bathroom.

She was anxious to show me her work, she told me, but I was damned if I'd make it that easy. I grabbed another beer and straddled one of her white folding chairs.

"You're going to have to fill me in a bit first, sweetheart."

"But I will. There's so much to tell, to show you." I watched it welling up in her. But I was determined to make her wait.

"Just sit down a minute and talk to me, can't you?"

"But why here?" She was uncomfortable even in her own home, like some animal outside its natural domain. Finally, she did sit all at once, stiffly, as if being punished, then just as suddenly she was up and pacing out to the kitchen. She came back without having gotten anything. I put it down to childish impatience -- a spoiled little girl who must have her way. And so I decided to keep her a little longer.

"Sit down just a minute. And let me look at you. What did you really do in Europe all that time?"

"Spelunking, for one thing. You know, deep underground caves," she smiled proudly. "A couple of group shows"

“ Bonn, Kassel. And I studied some at Joseph Beuys." Oh, yes, it just had to be Beuys, I thought. Beuys was in. The art world’s darling of the moment.

"The coyote guy?" I couldn't help sounding a bit sarcastic. "Please, don’t."


"Be so stupidly literal." All I really knew about Beuys was that week he spent talking to a live coyote in some New York gallery. That and the cockamamie story about his survival from a plane crash in the tundra. That was enough as far as I was concerned. But I saw she didn't care for my irreverence. She spoke very seriously about Beuys and his belief that museums were a straitjacket, busy selling Rembrandts and Picassos like packaged goods. "He’s rethought the basics of art, using materials metaphorically. Materials we never thought of as beautiful. Like animal fat."

"Animal fat."

"Yes. And others sensitive to heat."

I felt the urge to say something about knowing the difference between shit and Shinola, but I saw things were already rocky. I believed Beuys was a charlatan, selling absurd shamanic tales of angels and animals as gospel, but I couldn't help being moved by her genuine respect for him. So I listened more than spoke, watching her exquisitely mobile lips mouth the words, remembering what it was like to touch them. Yet even while she was talking, she was somewhere else and anxious for me to go there.

"Please, Charlie," she begged. And that easily I gave in. I insisted on taking the wine with us.

After all, I had kept it cold all the way from New York for just this occasion.

She was very excited and trying not to show it. When she took my hand, I felt the vibration pass through me. She led me out the back door, through a short, narrow alley and up the steep hill to the factory. From the darkness below, young voices rose into the night.

"Fe-li-ci-a, " a boy called and whistled. "Ay, mi Fé."

"What? Who's that?" I stuttered.

"Mi amor," sounded lewdly into the night, "Ay, ay, ay."

"Cillate, pendejo," she called back.

"No puedo vivir sin tu amor."

"¡Carajo!" she shouted.

"Por favor, mi vida."

"Vaya a tu mama¡."

"What the hell, Fé?" I turned on her, grabbing her arm.

"Don't pay attention. Just neighborhood kids."

"Sounds like they know you pretty well."

"Children, Charlie. Had a beer in my house once and think they own me."

It was black now, no moon or stars. Her flashlight guided us over a series of steps along a chain-link security fence, where she unlocked a heavily padlocked gate, then a side door, with heavy old keys she took from deep inside the front pocket of her overalls. She panned the light inside along a gray-green wall to a freight elevator. The paint was chipped and scratched and dirty. I heard a scurrying of small feet somewhere deep inside. She pulled me into the elevator, slid the heavy meshed gate closed and we ascended with a quick jerk and a clanging of chains into some dark upper region. She had turned off the flashlight, so all I was aware of was the heat, the vibration of the elevator and her body beside me. Then the hushed voice and the strange question.

"What if you were a primal man?" I stayed silent, trying to figure what game she was starting.

Had she been by herself too long? The old freight elevator rose in noisy fits and starts.

"No science, no economics. First Man. Alone among the animals, searching out unknown gods."

"What if I was in the dark with a lovely loon?" I asked, laughing.

"Try to be serious."

When the elevator jolted to a stop, she pushed the gate back, snapped the flashlight on, and the wavering beam led us down a long inky corridor, our footsteps echoing out into a seemingly endless void. She stopped, turned off the light and spoke very earnestly.

"What if you were trying to survive in a world you couldn't understand, only feel?"

"God, this place is immense. What the hell did they make here?"



"Machetes. The ultimate in Yankee ingenuity. Machetes for Cuba, Hispañola, Central America, the Philippines, God only knows where. All manufactured right here by Carson Blades & Co. Axes and adzes too. But the real money was in bolos."

"No kidding?"

"Think of the endless hordes of campesinos marching along, swinging their shiny Yankee steel. You see them in Rivera's paintings. Orozco’s. First we conquer them, then we export to them. Isn't that what they really meant by Manifest Destiny?" I was suddenly made even more nervous by the extreme blackness around us. I couldn't help it. Perhaps if I had been there the first time in daylight. I ran the sweating wine bottle up along the side of my neck and face.

"Who else uses this place?"

"A couple of artists keep studios down on the second floor. But it's all mine at night. Me and the rats."


"Live and let live."

"You don't mind working here alone?"

"The dark make you nervous?"

"I live in New York, remember? A little paranoia's good for the health." I tried to tune them out, but I kept hearing the distant echoes of our footsteps.

"This is my cave," she said, reaching along the wall and flicking on a single dramatic spot. The painted panel that suddenly appeared rising before us was huge, perhaps fifteen feet high. And I felt at once the aptness of the word, "cave."

It confronted me, forcing me to crane my neck and look upward. Something dark and powerful. I needed time to take it in, to assimilate its implied weight, its coarse mass. How to put it into thought, words. Crude. Blacks, grays, sepias. Rock. Scraped and polished. Eroded by water perhaps, cracked by fire. As if we were deep in the heart of a mountain.

But over that rough surface there was the hint of movement. Something running or swimming or in flight. Something elusively quick. As if it had been and no longer was, now only the remembrance, a swift shadow over stone. I recalled what she had said about spelunking and thought at once of French caves with huge primeval creatures painted across their ceilings. But this was not defined as mammal, foul or fish. It emitted energy without showing form.

What was its power? Space, line. Mystery. Suggesting instead of telling. There was a series of panels. And she lighted them theatrically, one after the other, so they appeared suddenly out of the void. All slightly different in color and movement, yet the same.

She was waiting. I could sense her waiting. But I had the odd sensation of being swallowed whole. Was it the art itself or the sudden shift from darkness to light? I wanted to reach out and touch. To feel its reality.

"I could use a cold glass of wine just now," I said finally. We sat on the floor in our ring of light, sipping the delicious dry fluid from short glasses she retrieved from somewhere out there in the dark. Icy on the tongue, coursing warm through the body. For a long time I couldn't speak about her work. So I babbled around it, about art in general, about abstract expressionists, minimalists, ops and pops. About flatness and depth, conceptual art and theater of the absurd. Naming names. Mumbling theories. I can't always feel art, but I can almost always talk the hell out of art. Nervous babble. Like speaking in tongues. At least I was clever enough not to ask her what they meant.

"They don't let many people into Lascaux anymore, you know," she said. "The breath of tourists was killing the timeless art."

"But I'll bet you were there."

"Helping a very nice photographer. I was with him in Altamira too."

"They're magnificent, Fé," I almost shouted. I was talking about what she had created, but she was still in the rapture of Lascaux. Her eyes had a glaze to them, like moonlight on water.

"Well, they're gods," she breathed.

"Solid," I said. "You've created the density and rigidity of the rock." She looked at me as if waking from a dream.

"Rivera called them 'moveable murals.' He learned to keep things portable after he had to destroy his work at Rockefeller Center."

Then for a long time we were quiet. We sipped our wine and stared up at the great rock wall over us. I couldn't help thinking of Colón and being jealous of the kind of ardor he must have aroused. If only I could have been the one to first lead her into the dark unknown.

"There's a Frenchman who has a theory about how they painted some of those fantastically fluid creatures in the caves," she told me. "He learned it from the Aborigines in Australia.They hold the pigment in their mouths, chew it and spit it out onto the rock. With great force. It's a kind of aspiration, as if they're breathing their life into their images."

"Sounds pretty erotic."

"Saliva is a very powerful adhesive." She smiled at me, showing me the thin line of pigment along her upper lip. "Charlie," she said suddenly. "Will you do something for me?"

"Isn't that why I'm here?"

"Something different, without asking why?"


"Have you ever modeled?"

"You mean like posing in front of people?"

"Naked to the world. Like the First Man."


"Will you take off your clothes for me?"


"Will you help me, Charlie?"

"You first," I said.

"Oh, of course."

"But a little more of this wine first." I was of two minds about this. Yes, my whole body was lusting to touch, to press itself against, but I had only to remember that fifteen-year-old kid standing below Felicia's window on that long ago night on Cape Cod, staring at the star above, dreaming of what was almost his while feeling the painful, icy blade of rejection, to be hesitant. So, as I helped her move the first great panel out of the darkness into the circle of light, I was thinking over and over, "Not
so goddamned easy."

I was surprised by the lightness of the panel. I had expected something much heavier. It was rigid, course, dense, but not so hard for us to carry and place flat on the concrete floor. She brought out a large plastic paint can. Then I stood and watched as she casually took off her sneakers, unbuttoned the bib and let her overalls fall to the floor with a clank of the heavy keys. She pulled off her t-shirt, then dropped her panties as unceremoniously as a dishtowel and stood before me, the woman I had longed to hold ever since I first saw her rise from the surf on Cape Cod. But for Fé this was just the business of art.

"Well?" she asked.

And so I clumsily shed my loafers, my chinos, unbuttoned my shirt, and finally, embarrassingly, my boxer shorts, regretting all the while that I hadn't spent more time at the gym toning my muscles, at the beach bronzing my flesh. For a while we sat on the floor, "le déjeuner sur l’herbe," sipping the last of the wine, feeling its effect, looking at and into each other. Was Manet's heart pumping like mine?

"Come over here," she said, standing beside the large paint can. She lifted the lid, dipped her hand into it and carefully stroked a mucous-like liquid down the side of my thigh. "I thought it was paint."

"Glaze," she corrected. "Paint shows you, glaze merely suggests. Now come and lie down here close to the edge of this panel. Careful. Don't move." She pressed down on me, imprinting the shadow of my thigh into the rock. "Now get up slowly. Careful. Don't smear it." She took more glaze, painting it across my hip and buttock and laying me on my side against the rock. Then my right foot, ankle and calf, my bent knee, each impression considered and precise. We all have our private fears. I now hallucinated on George Segal setting his models, imagining myself encased by him in plaster, an anonymous white figure left at the edge of a gray bed, hunched over in isolation. Or an aging woman with sagging breasts, lying apart, having allowed herself to be manipulated for the artist's purpose. Fé was stroking the glaze over my penis and testicles.

"Good, uncircumcised, like the First Man," she said. "Now, press yourself here firmly against the rock.
She placed me in the lower right corner, so I made my impression where the viewer might expect a signature. And all the while I was thinking, hell, I edit noir, I read a lot of crazy shit, this shouldn't feel so strange. I laughed nervously.

"I knew this preppy at college who claimed he once humped a tree in the rain."

"OK," she said, her mouth in a puzzled smile.

We leaned the panel against the wall. She studied it from different angles, then began rubbing each impression with a damp rag until the glaze was barely visible, eliminating it altogether in some places.

We dragged another panel onto the floor. She scrubbed me with paint remover, then soap and water, rinsing me carefully. Then she painted my left side, and this time herself as well. She placed me in the corner, around a section where the rough surface welled out. Then she lay tightly behind me, embracing me.

"Do you know Ecclesiastes?" she asked. "Vanity of vanities."

"Not that part."

"For every thing there is a season."

"Not that either."

"Two are better than one," I quoted.

"Again, if two lie together," she said, bringing me close, "then they have heat, but how can one be warm alone." Was this the same girl who had liked my reading poetry to her, asking me to kiss her "like Keats"?

Once again she got me up off the canvas and washed me, and I washed her as well, stroking her breasts softly, feeling her nipples harden and rise under my touch, stroking her belly, her thighs, carefully rinsing the last particles of glaze from her pubic hair. And again we lay together on the side of a third panel.

She spoke so softly I could barely hear, telling me about a mountain and a winding path that climbed treacherously to its crest. She asked me to imagine hiking this path close behind her, up and up until we lost ourselves in the clouds, then snaking our way slowly, cautiously down to the sea, through thick stands of bamboo, under precipices dense with fern. Colored birds streaked by. Invisible monkeys howled in the forest. Finally, in a desert-like region by the sea, hidden for years from the press of the world, lay a colonial village where barons once manned their haciendas with slaves, cultivating cacao for the world's finest chocolate. "Kakawa, the Maya called it," she told me. "The sweetest gift of the New World to the Old." The barons had long since left, their lands falling into decay. Descendants of the slaves had taken over, worshipping in their own way once European gods and beating tribal drums to ancient rhythms late into the night.

I wondered what she was starting now, one part of me resisting, but the other giving itself over and going along for the ride. After all, this had the feel of a sensual travel piece -- a Graham Greene, perhaps, or a Somerset Maugham -- and her voice a warm breath across my ear. Like any good editor, I had begun categorizing.

Young girls, fresh out of school from across the Atlantic, trekked to this village, blonde Brunhildes in shorts and hiking boots, searching out their own dark experience. OK, I decided, here comes the D. H. Lawrence bit.

"Sweating sweetly in their lederhosen," I added. She ignored me. "The one they look for is called Monte Quema'o, Burnt Mountain." "A giant, no doubt." My voice sounded thin.

Monte Quema'o was, in fact, tall and willowy, beautiful in form and surprisingly gentle with them, she said. She detailed the soft way he touched them with his fingers, his lips, his tongue, murmuring like the wind. It was not like any sex they had known. It was more like being rocked by gentle waves. His scent was like the land and the sea around them. So it's female erotica, I concluded, in the not-so-subtle style of Anaïs Nin.

"A scar runs across his abdomen, from a fight perhaps. He asks them to run their fingers very lightly along the keloid ridge."

"Really?" I hadn't heard that one before.

"We have an unquenchable thirst for mystery," her voice husky. I wanted to ask if she had herself been there, but I felt drugged.

In a clearing, deep within the forest, moonlight on the water, a breeze off the sea in the palms, he took each of them, very slowly, until their ecstasy echoed in the night.

While I listened, playing my sad little editor's game, I was actually unconsciously giving myself over to her voice like some child to a bedtime story, lapsing into a kind of lethargy. So I was late in realizing she had been for some time touching me, very lightly. Christ, all she really had to do was touch me.

However I might have wished to play the scene, I found it too late to resist what she had already taken so far and gave my all to her, letting my semen arc out, high and crystalline through the bright light, across the hard, dry rock.

"There, there," she murmured tenderly. "That was lovely."

When I finally rose, bathed in sweat, I couldn't help stare in amazement at the silver arc I had launched. It had a pure and primitive force I never thought to find in myself.

An abstraction flung into the night, never to be identified by another mortal as anything but pure energy.

"Damn," I shivered, sensing the first wave of shame.

"Yes," her mouth brightening into an innocent smile. "It might even be a more wonderful adhesive than saliva. I'll dust it so it shimmers like a vein of gold. Now you're immortal, Charlie."

Immortal, hell. I felt nothing like her First Man. I felt like a rabbit, trapped and skinned.

Used. Mapplethorped. And that was when I lost it.

"Bitch," I raged, my voice echoing out of the blackness. "Stupid, selfish ..." I spit it at her. And I slapped her. Hard. Open-handed, but hard enough to send her sideways to the floor. For a moment I thought I had knocked her out. I knelt beside her. A little blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Then she blinked and looked up at me as from a dream, her green eyes widening, swimming in tears.

"My god," she whispered. "My god, Charlie." And suddenly she pulled me down, off- balance, onto her, kissing me hard on the mouth, so I tasted her blood, and fucking primitive, I was thinking, fucking animal.

"Jesus, Fé." And her blood taste was warm in my mouth, her fingers deep into my back, moaning, writhing in paints and thinners on the rough factory floor.

“Yes," she cried.

And, yes, I took her … Or did she take me?


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