5 years ago
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Elisha and the Sea
He sold only one painting ever; it was admittedly his best. Beyond his family and his few friends, no one knew his name or that he was a painter or that he was anything other than a hotel clerk who lived by himself in a tiny apartment.
Alexander grew up in Mainesfield, Arkansas. His mother was a waitress and his father was no where to be found. He lived with his mother and sister in a two room apartment in the northwest corner of town. His mother slept on the couch.
The decision to become a painter came in his first month of seventh grade when Alexander fell madly in love with Elisha Moone, his art teacher. She was also a painter.
His first efforts were sketches in a spiral-bound notebook his mother had bought him. When she brought it home he quickly inscribed the thing: The Private Collection of Alexander Francis Olive. The first drawing was of his dog Sheba, who wasn't his dog anymore because they could not have pets in the apartment and was god-knows-where-ever since they left her behind at the pound.
He quickly became frustrated in trying to draw landscapes like Ms. Moone had tried to teach him. The idea of scale, background, composition - they frustrated him to no end. Ms. Moone did not scold his inability. She nurtured it as any proficient teacher would and told Alexander that maybe landscapes weren't for him. Maybe his talent lie elsewhere. This was the spark that would lead to the raging inferno that would be Alexander's love for his teacher.
"Anatomical studies might suit you best," she suggested and then defined the word anatomical for him.
It was indeed what suited him best.
Elisha Moone suggested two books he may look for in the library that may give him some ideas on where to start. One was Grey's Anatomy, which could be found in the school's library. The other was Photographs of the Human Form by William A. Ewing. That book, she informed Alexander, he would have to find at the public library in near-by Braintree. She did not tell him why.
Here is where the fire of his love for the art teacher took off, and it is because of four things that took place nearly simultaneously. They were Elisha Moone's suggestion that Alexander's inability to pick up the intricacies of artistic landscapes was just fine and that maybe he should try anatomical studies. Also was the suggestion to seek out William Ewing's book that could not be found in the school library but could be found elsewhere though she did not tell him why. The third thing was that Alexander did find the book in the public library and understood why his lovely art teacher did not tell him why he would not be able to find it at school. And fourthly Alexander had recently been given a little television for his room and his mother's boyfriend had run a line from the cable box to where it sat on the top of his dresser. More to the point, the Olive Family had cable.
Alexander developed a habit at night when his mother was at work. His habit was channel 24. After eight o'clock, there was no telling what you would see. His favorite were the little series that came on way after he was supposed to be asleep. They involved a thin pretext of story and dialogue and then an explicit barrage of skin and sweat. Breasts and legs. Quivering lips. Disheveled hair and heavy breath. And these people, Alexander noticed, as they made their desperate pleas for love and affection, they never came right out and said what they wanted, though they always seemed to want the same thing. There was a game that seemed to have to be played. A game, he noticed, a lot like a pretty lady telling a boy to seek out a book of naked pictures in the library in the next town over without saying exactly what he was going to find.
Its a fire.
He started by copying the forms in the Ewing book into his notebook and then adding his own embellishments. Elements of shading or repositioning when he couldn't quite get the picture right. He became adept at putting two forms from different pictures together to form one portrait with sensual overtones. (He became so good at it that he grew quite a reputation at school among his friends. Those who knew always wanted to take a look inside his Private Collection.) When he showed Ms. Moone, she did not scold him for drawing nudes, or even nudes in quite risqué compositions. Rather, she simply commented on the growing adeptness of his skill and his exactitude. Words that were unbeknownst fans to the flame.
By the middle of the school year, Alexander Olive bought a second sketchbook. This one he did not inscribe. This one, he showed no one. He kept it under his pillow and only used his favorite pen to make the drawings that went inside. A Zebra F301 Bold, which he kept clipped to the inside of the cover leaf. Never once in his life did he show another person the drawings he made there.
The first private drawing he made derived mostly from a deck of cards he found in his mother's boyfriend's belongings. Each card contained in its center a picture taken from some nameless array of sixties and seventies-era pornographic movies. Most didn't contain any sexual connotation other than a naked woman in some sort of pose or mid-pose. Alexander had taken to using these as his drawing models once he got tired of Ewing's book. For his first drawing he sketched out quite delicately the curvy body of a nameless blonde draped revealingly in a white business shirt unbuttoned just the right way, a woman whose body he imagined would be most like his love's. Instead of the precocious smiling face of the blonde, Alexander used Elisha Moone's unimaginative portrait found in the staff pages of the prior year's yearbook to render a very explicit, if not plausibly realistic portrait of the object of his desire.
By the end of the school year the sketchbook was nearly full and Alexander's infatuation with his teacher was no longer a thing either of them could ignore.
Elisha, on the one hand, was thankful for the coming summer. What had seemed at once a cute crush of one of her promising students had most obviously evolved into something dangerously more. She could see it in the way he looked at her. When he thought she wasn't looking its intensity could scare her. And there was the touches. The accidental brushes against her breasts or her rear that were just too frequent to be so accidental. By the time it became apparent to her that this child's infatuation was becoming too much, it was nearly summer. Just hold on, she thought. Over the summer break, she just knew, he would get over it. He would get a girlfriend. He would forget about her over the three months that they would have no contact. He would move on. It would go away. She just knew it.
Alexander Olive, on the other hand, dreaded the summer as a condemned man dreads his fate. May 23rd was the day of his execution. He could not, in fact, think past the 23rd. The world did not exist beyond it. In the few weeks that remained of the seventh grade he became more and more desperate. Scenarios played over and over in his head of just how could he keep the two of them together. He inquired about summer classes.
"No, no," Ms. Moone said. "I'm not teaching at all this summer. You should enjoy the break from school. Develop your talent at your own pace. Work on something new."
How could he enjoy the break? How could he survive without her? She was the only one that even knew he was an artist. A real artist.
"You know, Elisha," he said a few days later in another attempt. (His use of her first name in conversation began in late February that year and at first she didn't want to say anything because she thought it was important for an art teacher to have a different kind of report than other teachers. Say like math teachers, seeing how delicate a thing the two were working on. How deep the the lines of artistic expression could run. It wasn't until he evolved "the look" that she had second thoughts about him addressing her as Elisha. Just wait til summer. Just wait til summer.) "I've been thinking."
"Yeah. I've been thinking pretty hard."
"About what, Alex?"
"I think I should be your apprentice."
"Well," he said, not picking up on the dread in her voice. He had not learned that part of the game yet. "You're about the greatest artist I know."
"Why, thank you Alex, but-"
"Yeah, and I'm pretty serious about my art."
"You do very well in my class, Alex. You are coming along nicely."
"Yeah, I think I need an apprenticeship. I need my learning to be much more intense and hands on, you know?"
"I don't know," she said and actually moved back away from him a bit there in the hall where he had stopped her.
"I mean, we already have a great student/teacher relationship. I think it should progress to something more, you know?"
"Oh, Alex, I don't think that is a good idea," She said, but when she saw the glaze of terror come over him she couldn't help but amend her statement. "I just don't think I'm ready to take on an apprentice."
"Yeah," he said, dejected.
"I teach all day for nine months out of the year. I need a vacation just like you do. If I had an apprentice, I… well… I have projects I need to work on for myself."
"I need to develop my talent, just like you."
"But you're already an artist!" he said with a slight shriek and a look of embarrassment washed over the both of them.
Immediately Alexander felt he had lost the game. Right then all he wanted to do was run away.
Elisha was taken aback. Scarred, almost. What, until then, was still just her hunch, was blazingly, abundantly clear and they both knew it and they both could no longer hide behind the pretend aloofness that had protected them thus. Right then all she wanted to do was run away.
They both stood silent in the hall waiting for the other to speak.
"Alex, it'll be ok. I know you will be a great artist, and I think you'll learn someday that in order to be an artist sometimes you have to be very selfish with your time. You have to demand the time you need to create and fulfill yourself."
He said nothing.
"I just have to have this summer to myself. That's one of the main reasons I teach in the first place. So I could have the summers just to myself. So I didn't have to work and could spend my time working on my own growth and development. You understand, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess," he mumbled, and then he turned and he walked away.
From then on Alexander didn't speak a word to his teacher, his love, that he didn't have to. Only fulfilling the formalities of the the teacher/student relationship. It lasted right up until the monday of the last week of school after a weekend full of such torment, dread, anticipation, regret, and unbridled fear that when Monday did roll around he looked to Elisha Moone that he had not slept at all. He looked like perhaps a great tragedy had befallen him.
"Ms. Moone," he said to her sullenly. Quiet and meek.
"Hello, Alex," she said. She was nervous not only because of the way he looked but because he had sat unflinchingly after class until all the other students had left the room and there was only the two of them remaining. He sat and stared into the void in front of him completely uninterested in what ever it was that played out before him.
He should have said something, but he did not. He only looked at her. A look that only hinted at the longing curled up inside him. The longing that had come to rest low in his belly like a sticky black ball of tar.
"What is it Alex?"
And then the thing that would in many ways seal the fate of young Alexander Olive happened, and had to happen. This entire affair could not have ended in any other way. Alexander lunged at his teacher. He grabbed her by the back of the head, just like he had learned. He squinched up his shoulders as if he couldn't control the passionate contraction of muscles inside him, just like he had learned. He pushed up on the tips of his shoes to make up for the height difference between them and he closed his eyes, just like he had learned. He planted a long, passionate, lip-mashing kiss that sent charges of electricity back through his face and all down his body, just like he knew it would. Then he parted from her and looked at her as deeply and intently as he could muster. From the proximity of their faces her fear and her surprise registered excitement and he went in for another. It wasn't until he tried to employ his tongue, a matter of seconds really, that Elisha could snap out of her befuddlement and push the child away from her.
And before the vibrations of the words could settle in his throat, or resonate off his palate she knew what he was going to say. One week left. Just wait. But no, she thought. It can't be said.
-was all he could say before the fist-tight snarl of reflex ran down her arm and she slapped him across the face.
The exact same bloodless terror ran both their faces stark white, both their throats silent. Then Alex turned and ran from the class.
That was the last time either of them saw each other in the flesh.
Alexander ran down to the end of the hall, barreled through the door, loped down the stairwell four stairs at a time, busted through the emergency exit at the bottom, bound across three parking lots zigzagging and sidestepping between cars, charged up the hill beside the football field, and set off at a dead run down Morristown Road that did not stop until he had pushed himself through the front door of their tiny apartment, down the hall and collapsed in a ball of tears and snot and sobbing in the bottom of his bedroom closet.
Thus began the summer of THE PAINTING, as he would half-fondly remember it years later. In actuality it wasn't just one painting. It was twenty paintings. It was twenty paintings of the same picture over and over in a desperate, love-crushed effort to, in the three months available him during summer vacation, not only become the greatest painter Elisha Moone had ever seen, but to complete the penultimate abstraction of his love for her, embodied in one of his mash-up sketchbook portrait of her, so that once he presented it to her on the opening day of classes in September, she would have no choice but to regret and retract her rejection of him and fall madly and willingly into his arms.
And he stuck with it. He did nothing but paint. He took the bus to the nearest art store where he would spend his entire allowance on prefabricated canvases and paint and brushes. When he ran out of allowance, he taught himself how to steal the supplies he needed. (A skill he would later demand was the only useful thing he had ever learned in life.) He would ride the number 8 bus back home and march resolutely through the apartment oblivious to everything but the task at hand. Perfecting that swoop in the hip. Getting the blend of color just right. Just how her lips really are. Over the course of the three months, he completed twenty separate portraits, the seventeenth being the best, he would decide.
But something else happened to Alexander Olive that summer as he maniacally painted and perfected his emotional revenge on Elisha Moone. That summer he became an artist. Just as Elisha had predicted, the obsession he had with her, as a person, waned. By early August as he was completing number 17, all the emotion and need Alexander had for her was a vague, needle-sharp memory deep inside him. Settled in the muscle and nerve with which he painted his delicate strokes. The passion was actually, and forever would be, in the painting, in the effort and the drive to transfer the shifting perfection of the object in his mind to the whitish void of canvas. To create the outcome of his desire just as he knew it could be done; it was an effort he would always feel he failed at in every other aspect of his life.
By the time the school year rolled around in September, Alexander had no desire whatsoever to talk to Elisha. He had nearly forgotten she was even a real person, she had been relegated to the canvas for so long. He didn't see her at school until the third week. When he did, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. Her beauty was still radiant. The way she moved, still as humbly elegant as had ever entranced him. But as he looked at her, watched her cross from the front office to the gymnasium where she would pass down the long hall that ran beside it and eventually led to her classroom, there was a light there that always radiated from her that went out. Not an aura, exactly. Not some sort of trick of her make-up or her health. It was love-light. It was, Alexander knew instinctively, that very thing that had transferred from her body, her smell and her voice, to painting and his artistry. What had been her had become the canvas. What could have been THEM had become the unseen depth that only the paint and the effort could bring out. All he could do was bow his head and sigh and walk on to math class.
He did not paint the painting that would be his best until he was thirty three years old. Up to that point and even beyond it, Alexander led a fairly unremarkable if not plain ordinary life. He graduated from high school with average grades and did not go to college. He skipped around from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job throughout his twenties as he became more and more proficient at his painting, drinking in between and developing an acute introspection with the help of psychedelic drugs. Narcotic drugs. And then it became too much. And then he just drank.
By his late twenties he had secured a middle management job at a hotel on the outskirts of Little Rock where he had moved almost immediately after high school. He spent his mornings and afternoons checking people in and out of the hotel, carrying luggage, curtailing disasters such as malfunctioning air-conditioning units, faulty room keys, and the occasional rodent. At night he settled into the emptiness of his small second floor apartment with a case of beer and his stereo and he painted. He got drunk. He passed out, and he did it all again.
It was in a fit of creative blockage that he made the painting. Creative blockage and drunkenness and also a fit of nostalgia.
Alexander found himself in the floor of his bedroom picking through a box of old journals and sketchbooks he had been toting around from apartment to apartment for years. In that box was The Private Collection of Alexander Francis Olive and secured to it with two thick rubber bands that they used to secure bunches of broccoli together at the supermarket was the unchristened, ragged notebook dedicated to Elisha Moone, her face deftly placed on the beckoning, curvy bodies of various pornographic actresses. For two solid hours he leafed through the sketchbook. He leafed through the pain of that first love. That unrequited obsession. He leafed through the embarrassment of his behavior. He mulled over a hundred other ways he could have or should have handled himself, all of them infinitely better solutions than the one that had actually occurred.
He tried to stir up that longing, to actually feel how he had felt way back when, through the trove of portraits in front of him, but to no avail. The reason he could not, he decided, was because it was all fake. He had taken something that was raw and real and emotional and important to him and because of timidity and fear, because of doubt and of, ultimately, his burgeoning penchant for superficial self-gratification, created this volume of frankenstein pornography. He had contorted this unwilling, yet undying, warm desire into a cold but unquestionably malleable servant to the whims of his masturbatory selfishness. He had, he decided, defaced and degraded the woman that had sparked his first lusts and love, and he deserved to be shot down as he had been. He deserved to have failed and be crushed.
The next morning he awoke on the couch and didn't go to work. He drank a beer and made a pile of scrambled eggs for the hangover and he drank a pot of coffee to wake up. He set up a new canvas and began thinking about colors. He stared into the blank wall in front of him just as he always did and let the splotchy hues of his emotions seep out of the beige space there. Before the form came to him, before the context or the composition, there was the color. It oozed from an unseen place in him like a residue of the effort of feeling and he spent as much time as he needed simply mixing together dabs from the wrinkled paint tubes in front of him until that chimeric prism was represented in wet piles across his palette.
Overall he saw an antique blue with hints of green like old paintings of alleyways under city moonlight. More specifically a particular shade he remembered from a painting that hung in his grandmother's house. That was the color he began swabbing across the canvas as the form of Elisha Moone peered out from behind. Not just her head to some disjointed body but her as he remembered her. Her as he pictured her in his arms. Her who helped cull the first pangs of art from inside him. Her who suggested but never told.
Alexander did not go to work for three days. He painted and he drank. He formed the sea and he etched the cliff on which stood the delicate body of Elisha Moone. She stood against the sea. She stared into it unflinching, unperturbed by the infinite length, width, breadth, and depth to which it extended. Extended beyond the canvas. Beyond the color. Beyond the forms represented in it.
When he was finished, Alexander sat back and he knew what he had done. He marveled at his accomplishment. He smiled and thanked nameless, formless entities for the opportunity to do it. He was also frightened. He wouldn't admit it just then, but he had created a thing to whose standard he would spend the rest of his life chasing after. He would fill his apartment with completed canvases, but he would never have that feeling again. He would never create such a palimpsestic representation of the stratum of his soul: a beast consumed by the things that were forever lost.
It was not too long after his painting was completed that began the bloodletting that would become Alexander's signature. It was nothing as sinister or philosophical as a need for immortality. It was drunkenness. It was Orson Wells.
It was his friend Darren Claus that talked him into going. Promised him drinks. Assured him it was a great film.
Alexander had not painted since the completion of "Elisha and the Sea" as he had settled on calling it. He had spent his time not at work staring into the cold hues of the canvas or taking long walks through the hills trying to do something but think about the thing. It was nearly impossible. Not only because of the feelings it arose in him, but his amazement at its completion and its beauty. And the fact that he was committed to the defeat that no one would ever know what he had done. On his walks his mind would circle around that idea. The idea that he could do this, and at the time he was assured he would make many more like it, but he had no idea what to do with it. He had gone so long just getting by. He had gone so long keeping himself mentally and financially above water and now? For the first time Alexander felt like an artist. Like someone with an ability. Not just a fool dangling over the precipice.
How will they know its me? he continually thought to himself.
The film was called "F for Fake" and throughout the showing, crammed into tiny seats in a tiny theatre in a dingy, forgotten part of town; Alexander thought to himself that it was one of the most confusing, egotistical things he had ever seen and that Orson Wells was quite overrated in American culture. It was a jagged story of an art forger named Elmyr de Hory, who could not only rattle off completely convincing forgeries of any great painter he felt like in a matter of minutes, but was also adept at selling them off to museums and collectors all over the world. Also there was an author who wrote de Hory's biographer who went on to fake an interview and biography about the reclusive Howard Hughes. And in between Wells tries desperately to fit himself among them as well as his girlfriend.
The thing that stuck in Alexander's mind was the idea that no one would believe that he made his "Elisha and the Sea." How could a nobody create such a thing. How could he be tied to this peice forever? He would be dead and anyone could lay claim to it, because of course, who was Alexander Olive? Like a gargantuan stone rolling down hill, these thoughts tumbled out of control. The hubris of the forgers on the screen fed it. Their contempt for any sort of ownership of the painters whose fame and accomplishments they fed off of.
After the movie the two friends went to a bar near Alexander's apartment, and still the idea that "Elisha and the Sea" would not always be his plagued him. The two talked about the film, and Alexander stuck to the artistic merits of it, and the story, but he kept the feelings it engendered in him only rolling turbulently inside him. Darren was enthralled with the idea that so many "experts" could be fooled by fake masterpieces, that a man could live an entire life on such a charade. Alexander grumbled about Wells' annoying flamboyance, about how the film was nothing but an egotistical attempt at name-dropping and self importance. Perhaps because inside he was consumed with his propriety, what he saw as the unbearable but impending separation of artist from his art, and it colored the world as labored and selfish. As the drinks poured down his throat, the more inescapable his paranoia became.
It was late when he got home, but Alexander did not go to bed. He was still able to walk so he walked to the refrigerator and pulled out what remained of a case of beer. He had resolved, on the short drive home, that he would not ever allow his person to be separated from that which it had produced. "Elisha and the Sea" would be better off destroyed than put into the charnel house of the art market, the art world… this was how out of control the unknown artist could become. His stifled mind so ripe for self-destruction, and grown from such an intense self-interest. At that point he was frantic, drunk, eyes wild with suicide. He lugged the beer through the kitchen, stopped at the drawer by the stove, pulled out a long, serrated steak knife and walked back into the living room where he painted.
He set down the beer on the couch and opened one and drank from it, not once removing his eyes from "Elisha and the Sea." Anyone observing the standoff would have sworn it was an impasse between warring lovers deep into the night. Truth was, Alexander Olive was daring himself, pushing himself, to destroy what he knew was the greatest thing he would ever achieve. In the middle of his next beer he actually held the knife within millimeters of the freshly dried paint. Held it as if it were the throat of his enemy and he held it there for a long time, the jagged blade trembling against his thinned blood.
In the end it was only his own flesh he could bring to destroy. He pulled back the knife and let out an exhausted shriek and drug the sawtooth of the blade across his forearm as his desperation left him no choice but to draw blood. He fell back into the wall and flung his arms out wide, beer and blood and the silvery glint of knife fanning from his body. His head cracked the drywall. He closed his eyes and slid to the floor. Alexander wept.
When he came to, the two drops of blood on the lower right of the painting was the first thing he saw. They were like to crimson gems tumbling off the cliff, into the sea, a trauma to wash away. Alexander could only stare. He could only think that he had just signed his name in blood. Then the idea hit him that he would repeat over the dozens upon dozens of paintings he would complete in the last twenty years of his life. He reached out and he raised his thumb and he pushed it into the bubbles of blood pulling to the right slightly and then pressing firm. He pulled back quick and watched the thick liquid settle into the minute labyrinth of his thumb print.
"Fake that, Elmyr," he said quietly to the room. "Fake that."
What followed that harrowing night was nineteen solid months of drinking. Alexander did not paint a single stroke. He only went to work most of the time. He forged a routine that required as little thinking as possible. Clock out, grocery store for a case of beer, a microwave dinner, home, oblivion. Every day for six months. The only snag was when he put his car into a telephone pole. From that point on he had to incorporate the bus schedule into his regimen. Number 16 to Market Street at 9:15am. Number 9 from Market Street to Enterprise Boulevard. Clock in. Clock out. Number 9 to Market Street. Walk two blocks to Bailey Brothers. Case of beer. Some sort of dinner. Two blocks back. Number 16. Home. Oblivion.
It was on the number 9 that Alexander Olive met Inez Collabera. She had to introduce herself four times before he would remember having met her and to greet her back with the least bit of warmth. She noticed that it was best to talk to him at the end of the day, on the trip back downtown. It was better because it was more pleasant. The salty, back-of-the-throat smell of what ever it was he drank at night had warn off and he was much more alert. He actually talked on the trip back home.
Inez Collabera was the bus driver. An ex-addict with the fortunate self-realization to never ever take anything for granted. To never ever deny yourself the opportunity for love or friendship just because you don't know exactly what to say. Inez was a long time and a long distance from turning away from the things that intrigued her. Even if it smelled like a spoiled ham sandwich and grumbled more than spoke words.
For a couple of weeks she would say, "Hello Mr. Olive. How are you feeling?"
She knew his name not because he had told her but because her quick eye read it off the legend of his thirty-day bus pass.
Finally, one day when the bus was particularly full and Alexander was forced to sit in a seat diagonal from the throne Inez drove from, she turned to him and held out her hand and she smiled and said quite delicately, "I am Inez Collabera."
It was the fragile, ruby-red tone of her voice that made Alexander lift his head. His eyes hung open and he actually flinched just a bit when he saw her hand and her at the end of it looking down at him and smiling. Her eyes were a healing chocolate unending in the black of their center as if what was inside her was infinite and unfathomable and, Alexander knew instantly, the most desirous thing on lonely planet earth. He reached out his hand slowly. He wasn't scared. He wasn't nervous to touch her. He had only been up an hour and the motion of extending his body made him want to vomit.
"Nice to meet you," is what he meant to say though neither of them could be completely sure what it was that actually passed over his lips.
She dipped her head and wanted to say more but she caught the pitiful, sick look in his eyes, the paling of his skin, the sorrow curled up in the lines of his forehead, so all she said was, "Let's get you to work."
Alexander tried to smile.
She was not driving on his way home that day but she did say hello the next morning and it seemed as if he did not quite hear her. He did look when he showed her his pass and there was no sign of recognition anywhere on his face. They continued like this into the middle of the following week until the day before the American Thanksgiving holiday when most people did not go to work and did not go out to eat and, therefore, did not ride the bus.
The last person got off Inez's bus at the stop before she made the turn onto Market Street. She rode on in anticipation. Did he go to work today? Will I have to pick someone up on Fourth Street? The frustration had been building in her. He just wouldn't talk. Who was he? She did think he was good looking, or could be if he would just clean up a bit, maybe stop drinking whatever cheap booze had a hold on him. But that was not what fascinated her so much about him. Alexander Olive. It wouldn't have even been possible for her to say exactly what it was, but she did know that it was in his eyes. Such a sadness. An unwillingness to give up something, though it did appear that he had given up on quite a bit. Through the apparent lack of self-respect, Inez could see a great dedication in Alexander that kept her trying to pry him from his shell. This thing had been on her mind for days. She had to speak to him. Get him to talk. Try until the end to get to know him. But she knew they would have to be alone. It had to be just them and he had to be reasonably sober. IT had to be the evening run back to Market Street. The bus had to be empty. It was now or never.
Inez passed fourth and Market and smiled at the empty kiosk where Ms. Koppel and the Chinese lady that never spoke or smiled would normally be huddled. Sixth, Seventh, Eighth Streets, all empty, but as she turned onto Ninth and could see onto Enterprise there was a figure under the harsh lights of the last stop before his. A thin, short shadow cut black as pitch under the cold fluorescents in the roof of the kiosk. She sighed and could feel herself slump in the pneumatic thrown. At the corner she slowed and peered around and tried to make out the next stop three blocks down but it was too dark. Seeing this stranger waiting for her, she hoped that he had not gone to work. She thought it would be too disappointing. He wouldn't say a word.
She labored the bus onto Enterprise and kept it slow as she righted it in front of the kiosk. She looked down form her perch and only caught herself frowning at the little old lady waving her down. SHe stopped the bus and actuated the accordion door and the lady ambled up to the first step.
"This the bus to Highland Park?" the lady asked so meekly Inez could barely hear her, though the ladies face looked as if she was giving it all she got. Even her body shook as she bellowed.
"I'm sorry." Inez said. "What was that?"
"Are you going to Highland Park?" the lady said syllabically.
"Oh, no ma'am," Inez said, hoping the woman didn't take her sudden smile for the relief that it was. "You need the number 4," she said and checked her watch, and then said, "It'll be along in about twelve minutes."
The little old lady didn't speak but nodded and waved her thin, veiny hand in understanding and stepped away from the bus.
"Have a good night," Inez said as she closed the door and moved the bus forward.
As she pulled up to the next stop, she recognized the gaunt figure waiting for her. The solid position of his stance. The bow of his back.
"Hello, Mr. Olive," she said as usual.
Alexander had his pass ready to show and Inez pressed the proper button on the fare box at her side and he began to walk by, but also, and out the ordinary, Alexander replied to her.
"Evening, Ms. Collabera," He said.
"Hey," Inez squeaked, as if him simply speaking pressed some sort of button in her.
He stopped from walking back to the lonely hind-end of the bus and turned toward and looked at her in the wide rearview mirror where he could see her. Her endless chocolate eyes.
"Why don't you sit up here," she said in a way that wasn't really a suggestion. She smiled at him and she winked, but did not recant.
Alexander turned and sat at the seat closest to her diagonally so there were no partitions between them. He didn't speak. He merely set his briefcase between his feet and settled back in the plastic seat and Inez thought he looked like a child.
They went three more stops and neither spoke. Inez realized she had not really thought past this moment. She had no idea what to say. After she turned onto 15th street she knew there was the long, dark stretch around to Cherry street. No stops for 12 whole blocks. Now was the time.
"How was work today?" she asked.
It took him a minute but he finally answered her.
"What do you do?"
"I manage the hotel on Ferro Street."
"You like that for work?"
He looked like a child and he sounded like the oldest man in the world. A hard not to crack, she thought.
"You and I have been making this trip a while now, Mr. Olive. Why do you not talk to me very much?"
"I wouldn't want to distract you from your driving."
"Ahh," she said. "Clever, but I don't think that is the reason."
"What would I say?"
"Hello is a good place to start. Like tonight."
"I said hello?"
She looked up at him in the rearview mirror and saw that he was smiling. Slightly.
"Very funny, Mr, Olive. Very funny."
"You can call me Alex."
"Ahh, see, so friendly."
"What do you do when you are not managing the hotel on Ferro Street?"
She could see the corners of his eyes drop and looked off ahead of them into the piercing headlights of oncoming traffic. She knew she had asked the wrong question, but she really wanted to know. She really wanted to know him.
After a few seconds he only shrugged.
"Oh, come one, you have to do something. SOmething for fun, no? I know, you are a salsa dancer, aren't you," and she shuffled slightly in her seat, smiled a wonderfully innocent smile and looked at Alexander in the mirror, but he was not smiling. He was not looking. "You are a skydiver," she said. "You are a lion tamer."
"I was a painter," he said, and then grimaced and shuffled uncomfortable in his seat.
"A painter, ooohhhh," she said. "An artist. That is good. That is good. Ican see you are a painter now. You are very serious.
"I WAS a painter. Not anymore."
"I haven't painted a thing in over a year. I'm not a painter anymore."
"Oh," she said. "Well, what do you do now for fun."
"Well, what did you USED to paint when you WERE a painter."
The two sat in silence until they were back on Market Street and Alexander was about to get off the bus.
"Alex," she said in order to stop him.
He turned to her and widened his eyes.
"I would like to talk to you sometime, but not about painting. Something else."
"What do you want to talk about?"
"Anything," she said.
The decision that she was in love with Alexander Olive, and that she would be with him for as long as she could came the first time she entered his apartment at the end of their fifth date, which was coffee at an all night diner a few blocks away. When they stepped up to the front door, she did not feel it. As they walked up the stairs that led to his living room she did not feel it. When she saw his paintings, the sparse shambles of his apartment, the transformation that came over him as he entered his own environment… that was the moment. She let him know by kissing him gently and rubbing his shoulder as she had felt his entire body go rigid.
She pulled back from the kiss and smiled and turned away to see his life work in stacks leaned against every available inch of wall space.
"Elisha and the Sea" was still clamped into the easel in the corner of the living room. Like a moth to the flame, Inez was pulled towards it. There were things in it she recognized. The resolute yet melting sadness in the woman's eyes. The labored standing. The slight bow in her back. These were things she saw in Alexander. The color if the sea reflected in the sky above. It was a blue she could taste, that she could feel in the center of her chest. All along her skin. It was palpable like a sad story told by someone you love. There was an immediate concern she felt, but could not explain. Then Alexander stepped up behind her wrapped his arms around her.
Later, in bed, she said to him, "She is someone you know."
"Who," he asked.
"The woman in the painting. You know her."
"I did. It was a long time ago."
"Tell me about her."
He laughed a little and squeezed her and said, "Its not what you think."
"How," she asked, "do you know what I think when I have not told you? I want to know about her. I don't care how long it is since you have known her."
Alexander told Inez the story of Elisha Moone. Every embarrassing detail of it.
"And you made such a beautiful painting because of such a silly crush in grade school?"
"It wasn't so silly then."
"Yes, but it was so long ago."
"Its not really about her. I mean it is, but is also not about her too. Its more about me, I think. More about how I see things because of her, and the things that are not her. Everything really, I guess."
"I do not understand."
"I don't know that I do either. I mean, I understand but its not really in a place that you can talk about so clearly, you know?"
"Hmmm. I think I do."
The next time the two saw each other was on the bus on the first morning after the night of Alexander's last drink. A promise he had made.
"Hello, Mr. Olive," Inez said with only a slight purr and she handed him a scrap of paper.
"Hello, Ms. Callabera," Alexander replied as he looked over the paper.
WILLIAM DEVAS. FIRST COMMUNITY BANK. 555-8990.
"That is my cousin's number," Inez said and put the bus back into motion.
"He is the manager of that bank. It is on Wilshire."
"Ok, yes, well, every few months they have a featured artist and that artist hangs up their paintings or their photographs or whatever and it stays on display for like three months."
"Yeah," Alexander sighed flatly.
"You don't have to do anything but show up with the paintings, Alex. I told him how wonderful they are and he trusts me. You just take them there, six of them, and take "Elisha and the Sea." Billy says there are rich people come in all the time. He says they always sell something. The artists. You should do it. I bet you would sell every one of the paintings you took in there."
It took a lot more than that, but finally she was able to convince Alexander to show his work in the bank. She was wrong about selling everything he hung there. He only sold one painting. "Elisha and the sea." And had he not been from tiny Mainesfield, Arkansas, it is doubtful he would have sold even that, as amazing and beautiful a painting as it was.
His name was Ernest Calderazzo. He was from Pikeville, Arkansas. It was a town even smaller than Mainesfield, but Alexander had indeed heard of it. It was, in fact, where you went to get pumpkins for Halloween and Turkeys for Thanksgiving, both sold out of the front yard of the same farm on County Road B. Ernest was a wiry, skittish man who never seemed to blink. Though it was mid-December he was dressed in khaki shorts and a white, short-sleeved button down shirt that showed off a lithe contour of muscle and vein under nearly hairless, tanned skin. He came into the bank near the end of the "Opening" and was stopped flat by "Elisha and the Sea."
"Well, I'll be damned," he said.
The sun was down and Alexander was tired. When it got late he shook, because of his addiction to alcohol, though it wasn't as noticeable as it was the first few nights when Inez had to nurse him; she had to literally hold him down. On top of all that, Alexander had no idea what to say to the people that were coming through the bank.
It was a community bank and apparently the community was very excited about the art openings that occur there. There had been a steady stream of octogenarians and civic leaders and young couples for the four hours he had to stand and shake hands and try to answer the strange, sometimes obtuse questions they all had to ask. He realized that most people thought painting was much more involved and technical than it really was. They seemed to look at it like some sort of science. Like it was a skill to be learned from a place where there was no skill at all. The idea of creation being driven and upheld by passion and drive and, quite honestly, luck seemed foreign to them. He realized that had he described his creative process honestly, it sounded as if he just made it all up as he went along. It was not all together untrue.
"I don't have to think about it too hard," he told one young lady. "I've been painting for a long time. I have the way I do things. I think a lot of it is reflex these days."
"You have to work hard," he told a little boy that could not stop staring at Alexander's rendition of a carousel. "You get lots of practice so you know exactly what to do."
By the time Ernest Calderazzo had taken sight of "Elisha and the Sea" all Alexander could think to say is, "Its the best damned thing I've ever done."
Ernest turned to the artist stiffly as if there were a metal rod in his back instead of a spine, and his opened wide and blue behind rounded spectacles. It was only after he had sight of Alexander and he had processed what he said that Ernest smiled. He smiled with his entire face, eyes and all. A thick mustache of wiry strawberry blonde hair fading to grey draped over his mouth parted to reveal pale lips and a wide gap between his two front teeth.
Alexander stepped up beside him and Inez flanked him.
"That is something else, indeed," Ernest said with an accent thin and drawn and stiff-tongued. Thick in the back of his mouth.
"I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it," Inez said. Alexander looked at her and she smiled and he shook his head.
"I bet you did," Ernest said. "You from up north somewhere, buddy? Out on the coast?"
"You do up the ocean real nice here. Looks like what those yankees want to paint. They always screw it up though. Throw in some sort of boat or lobster or something. Never seen a bunch of ocean loving fools can't paint the ocean to save there lives."
"No sir, never been up north. I'm from Arkansas."
Ernest turned to Alexander with the same stiff swing. The same all-or-nothing smile.
"Well I'll be damned. A true Arkansawyer. Where abouts you from?"
"Oh, yeah, I know Mainesfield. Hell, we're practically neighbors. I'm from Pikeville."
"I know Pikeville," Alexander said and the two men shook hands.
"Betcha got a turkey or two from there, aye boy?"
"Well hell, boy, you done good," Ernest said offering a hand to the paintings all around the bank. "Didn't think west Arkansas could make anything but rice farmers and drunks."
Alexander nodded and Inez smiled but covered her mouth.
"What do you do, Mr. Calderazzo?" she asked.
"I'm a rice farmer and a drunk."
The three of them laughed.
"Well," he continued, "I used to be. I just sell the corn now. Got to old for all the heavy lifting. Retired from drinking too. Got to old to pick my ass up off the ground."
"Yes, sir," Alexander said and lifted a toast with the styrofoam cup of water he was drinking.
"Hell, I knew it boy," Ernest said. "Knew it before I even seen you. Knew it when I seen this wonderful goddamned painting here."
"Anybody who can paint the sadness that is in that woman there," he said, pointing to the thin sliver of figure within "Elisha and the Sea," "had to take them a drink afterwards. Had to have a few before too."
"Yes, sir. I did."
"What do you want for it?"
Inez hid another smile.
"That one right there," he said of "Elisha and the Sea."
"I don't know. I-"
"Well hell, says $1000 right there on the tag under it."
"Yeah but I. I thought maybe that would detour anyone from buying it. I hadn't really planned on selling it."
"Well, I'll give you $2500 to detour you from holding on to it. How does that sound?"
In the end, Alexander walked away from the First Community Bank with a check for $5000 and a thank you from the United Rice Growers of Northwest Arkansas.
That night when they left the bank, Alexander stopped the car in front of his old bar and asked Inez to come inside with him. He told her he needed her help because he just sold off a piece of his soul and he was going to go inside there and have a drink. He needed her help because she had to make sure he had only one.
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