The Bending Trail of Time
by Patrick McCarthy
He saw the sunlight through his half-closed eyelids. It was later than usual. But it was a Sunday, and his neighbors were still sleeping.
It was quiet, even on the freeways, where the sounds went on night and day.
He got up, took a leak, and turned on the hotplate, and the computer. He logged on, but not for very long.
It was time to replace his back door. He had thought about it for at least a year, and today there was no putting it off. The old rotten door didn't close, and its hinges were ripping free.
The outer wooden door was really just for show. Inside of this was a welded iron door firmly screwed to the concrete block wall.
The iron door looked like it was once part of an old jail. The kind you see in the cowboy movies. Sometimes he'd clench the vertical bars and assume a forlorn, desperate look. Like he was a prisoner, unjustly held.
But mostly the iron bars were for keeping the world out. They protected him, and made his world safe.
After finishing a pot of black coffee, he walked to the back of the studio and picked up a hammer and small pry bar.
After a few whacks the decayed wooden frame came down. One piece studded with rusty nails almost smacked him on the head. Demolition was the most dangerous type of construction work. Even when it came to a small job.
He had to hang the new door before dark. It was going well, but he noticed his neighbors from across the alley were having lunch. There were about eight of them sitting at a table outside in the little parking lot.
They could easily hear him as he hammered and drilled.
He stopped and went inside.
He busied himself, pacing, and kept glancing across the alley at the festive table. They were laughing, and kids ran about playing. It went on for a while.
The sun started going down, and the new door was eventually installed.
But the fit was off. He took out his electric sander and began to smooth down the new jamb until the door opened and closed without grazing anything.
He surveyed his handiwork, going outside, then inside. Outside, inside.
It wasn't perfect, but it did happen. There were more things to do before it was finished, but he felt good about it.
Yet he wondered if his neighbors had their own opinions, which were very different than his.
He slept poorly, fretting about the remaining problems with his door. But after his coffee he attacked the situation and with an hour of work everything was solved.
The door opened and closed, was able to be locked and unlocked, and could pass for a professional job.
He drove his pickup to Home Depot.
He filled his cart with lengths of lumber and canvas dropcloth. A client had ordered two large paintings to be picked up by Wednesday.
On the way back to the studio in Boyle Heights, a vintage area of Los Angeles, he stopped at a downtown supermarket. The store was more expensive, but it did have a better selection, and he bought a cheap bottle of Malbec, some pre-made sushi, and a wedge of domestic Brie. The price was higher than he expected, and he made a note to not return for at least half a year.
The phone rang. It was his daughter, Kristina.
"So, how's my poppa?"
"Just fine. And my little daughter?"
"Oh, couldn't be better. What did you do for New Year's?"
"Nothing much. Stayed home. And you?"
"I went with Chloe to a few parties. The first one was terrible. It was that A. A. crowd. I felt like I was in Jonestown."
"Oh, well . . . and the second one?"
"It was better. Chloe said it was the fanciest house she'd ever been in, so I was curious about it. A doctor's place in Brentwood. It was beautiful, lots of expensive champagne, and great hors d'oeuvre. The host kept apologizing for the turnout, saying there were so many more people last year, but it was full enough. About three-quarters of the guests were these short-haired lesbians, like Lupe. I guess the doctor's wife is into women."
"And you enjoyed yourselves."
"We did. Everyone is always friendly towards Chloe and me."
"I'll be glad to open the gallery tomorrow. Holidays are a nuisance for the self-employed."
"I agree. I have to write this one person about the tables."
He drove from Boyle Heights to his gallery in the Fairfax area. After being away from the public for two days he was glad to be back in his store. Without his own store to hawk his apples he always had a much harder time of it. But a small, modest retail space was no royal road to riches. Still, it was better than nothing.
"Here's some cash from Rainer, and a check for those two rings," Kristina said, handing him some money. She was his partner. "Rainer gave the amour painting to one of his clients. The wealthy lady who has a big crush on him. She absolutely loved it. She also said she's going to get him tons, tons, of new people. But who knows? They were going to turn off our phone so I took out $130 and paid the bill."
"Okay. At least she seems to be trying. So she loved the skull painting. Or maybe just Rainer. I need to make another one."
He recently made a silkscreen of an old engraving of a skull. He found it in a book. It kept selling as soon as he put it on the wall. Maybe slightly negative images tended to move during tough times. After that he planned on making a dragon.
"Elsa doesn't like the skull. She says it's missing its jaw."
"So how is Elsa? I sent her a Happy New Year's card. She wrote back and said thank you."
"I just saw her at the studio, as I was leaving. I guess she's about the same. Or maybe a little less upbeat."
Elsa was a younger painter. She shared the studio with him. Originally she'd asked for a job, and eventually he hired her to build stretchers, and prepare his canvases.
That didn't last long. She was talented and, like so many artists starting out, very ambitious, very hot for honors, and fame. Or at least enough money to live on. So she began her own paintings, using his studio and making her own silkscreens.
He wanted her to be successful, and did what he could to give her a push in that direction. But it's not as easy at it looks, and after a few solo shows in LA, and being temporarily in demand, suddenly it seemed to come to a halt.
Elsa hadn't counted on the severe recession. She priced her paintings higher than her former boss, and the market went cold.
"I haven't sold a painting for two months. I'm going to have to do something else. But what?" she said. "How are you making it?"
"I scratch by. Like I've always done. This is my third or fourth recession. They end, but very slowly."
"I have no connections here. All my connections are on the East Coast. You have Kristina and Chloe. And other people. I have no one."
"I don't know what to tell you. It's brutal. I am out of suggestions."
"I'm not asking for suggestions. We're just having a conversation."
"I realize that, but I always had ideas about selling paintings, but today -- nothing. Everything I can think of leads nowhere. I can only address my own problems. Sometimes I helped solve other people's dilemmas, but no more. Those days are over."
Connections are overrated. Do you make a great painting from connections? Do connections ever let you write a fantastic poem, or compose a beautiful song?
Elsa and her lack of connections. A familiar refrain. But after all, she's been in LA for ten years. And she does have a sister that lives here, even though they're currently not speaking.
"After our first ten years in LA, would we have said that all our connections are back in Florida?" he said to Kristina later on. "Nobody gave a shit about our situation. Certainly there was no one to count on back there. We were up against it, but we managed. Why can't Elsa make some solid friends? Someone helpful. I wonder if she knows what a perfect choice is?
"I don't know. She did find you, though."
"You can either work for a painter, or become a painter. She needs to become the painter that she is. She doesn't realize that she's off to a flying start. She has plenty of time." He then spoke directly to his daughter. "You actually have made a perfect choice, at least once or twice. Rainer was an excellent choice."
"He was. We fell in love, got married, and had a child together. It didn't last, but it was perfect for the time."
Kristina and her husband were breaking up, after ten years. But in a civilized, friendly manner. No yelling, no violence, no cruel words.
"If you do it once, you can do it twice. But you have to have that one ideal choice under your belt," he said.
"It's like looking for an apartment. You know what you want. And what you don't want. It must have parking, hardwood floors, good neighborhood . . . and if you find one that lacks these essential features you should pass on it. Why take something that you'll regret? Why settle for something much worse than you've known? It's the same with love."
"You know," he said, after a long pause,"it's so difficult, so unfruitful, talking about love. Oddly, I can only discuss these matters with you and Chloe. Everyone else gets either very defensive, or they can't rise above their own experiences."
It's as if people have no feelings for generalized patterns. They live, and throw themselves into situations, but then become disappointed. They're constantly being surprised. But not in a good way.
The morning sunlight knifed through a crack in his new door. It annoyed him. The fit was off.
He walked to the back of the studio and stared at Elsa's latest paintings. He preferred to study them in the daylight. When he came home from the gallery it was too dark, and the lights at the far end of the studio didn't work.
After a few minutes he called her. Her phone was turned off because she hadn't paid the monthly bill, but she was still able to receive calls.
"Hey, I've been looking at your pieces and it's given me a depressed feeling"
She was silent on the other end.
"The best one of the five sitting here is the abstraction. It stands out from the others. It's very good, but I'm depressed because I know how long and hard you've worked on it. It leads me to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a fast and easy great painting."
"That one's taken me a month to paint."
"I understand. You've grappled with it. The surface is all built up. Compared to the other four it's like a strong espresso and the rest are weak tea. It's more concentrated, and personal. It's what painting's all about."
"But no one wants it. You'd think a decorative piece would be easy to sell."
"Decorative is easy to sell, but that isn't decorative. It's a superior painting. The better we paint the less popular they become. Plus it'd be very difficult to sell it for what it's worth."
"I can't even sell it for any price."
"Yeah, that's a problem. It's hard enough making a living just knocking pieces out and not looking back, but when we decide to paint like we were born to paint --- it becomes impossible."
"I'm glad you like it. The dog painting next to it is several years old."
"It's still good, but not as good. I try to imagine walking into some place and see these five hanging at a mismarked, ridiculously low price. Then I'd definitely choose the abstract one. When you see a group of them you can't stop yourself from ranking them."
He continued to be impressed with the young painter. She was weirdly driven. In the time that he had known her, she caught up with him, and even moved past him. It was confounding. He was happy for her, and didn't begrudge the premature brilliance.
But sometimes when he was in a lousy mood he took it out on Elsa, just because she happened to be around. She repaid him in the same way, but her lousy mood wasn't as dark and twisted as his. Probably due to her age, or maybe her gender.
Young women go through hell, but at least they go through it and come out on the other side. An old man, well, it gets harder to slog your way through your nightmares. He'll probably end up dead in the godless murk of it all.
At half his age, Elsa bounced back quickly, nor did she fall that far. Her skin was smooth and taut and even. That was a sign of her resilience.
He felt better for having phoned and complimented her.
He thought about his relationship with the young artist as he drove to the gallery. It was good, but the word long was starting to creep into his thoughts.
He hated anything long. But maybe it was just another quirk that set him apart. And maybe it was as useful, as it was exasperating.
He had learned patience, and how to graciously put up with long things. And even make them seem brief.
"So how's Elsa today?" Kristina asked as he walked into the gallery. As if she read his mind.
"You know how proud she is of her tallness? And how she once modelled on the runway?"
"Oh, don't I know it. She never stops pointing out how short I am."
"Right, but people should take pleasure in some part of their body. Elsa loves her height. And she's jealous of your boobs."
"She should get over that."
"I was at her place the other night, and I said something stupid. I know she likes to be complimented on her tallness, but as I was listing her attributes I told how much I liked her big feet."
"Oh, God. That's terrible. No woman wants to hear that."
"But she has nice slim, rather lengthy, and very attractive feet. She calls them Jesus feet, like the images of his feet when he was nailed to a cross."
"But don't call them big."
"I guess the word big should never be applied to any body part on a woman. If you're trying to flatter her."
"No. There was a client of Rainer's in New York that he used to call Big Face.
"What about big eyes? Wouldn't every woman like to be told she has big eyes?"
"Not Chloe. She hates it when anyone mentions her big eyes. To her they just seem bulging."
"I see your point. Beauty and smallness go together. Just like beauty and women. Well, I'll never make that mistake again."
He received a call from the bank. A woman left her name and number. He knew what it was about. He was delinquent on his property taxes. It galled him, not so much having to pay with leaden regularity, but that he just didn't have the funds. He kept up with them under ordinary circumstances, but had fallen behind the last two years.
The word foreclosure appeared in the letters they sent him. A threat, but not to be taken lightly.
"I guess you're calling about the overdue property taxes," he said on the phone.
"I am." It was an older voice, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
"I'm certainly trying my hardest to bring them up to date, but business has been very slow. I have to do something. I understand that. By February first I'll have the problem taken care of.
"All right. By the first of next month they'll be paid. I'll make a note of that. Thanks for returning my call."
Did people not return her calls?
He breathed easier, but it didn't make the problem go away.
He worked on several paintings, and then loaded the pickup with planks stored at the studio. They were to be turned into tables that his daughter designed. Four ten inch by two inch kiln-dried boards for the top, and two four by four by eight foot pieces for the feet. He'd bring over three two by fours for the apron later.
Kristina advertised the rugged dining tables online, and she sold quite a few over the last year and a half. Between the tables, the paintings, and the bronzes, they put together a modest business.
He dropped off the wood at a cabinet-maker's shop down the street on Whittier. The carpenters spoke as much English as he spoke Spanish, but they managed with the help of drawings, photographs, and hand gestures. He was surprised that everything, so far, turned out just as they planned.
After a dozen tables the Hispanic guys tried to raise the prices for the work, but he told them no. No. There were others who'd do it for that price. The economy was harsh, and people had to accept the facts. A half a loaf was better than none. Even a third of a loaf. A quarter loaf.
It was the truth. In LA there was always someone who'd do it quicker, better, and cheaper. But you could waste a lot of time and money looking for them.
"I got two more orders for tables. Also, a bench," Kristina said, as her father walked into their gallery.
"Usually the first two weeks after Christmas are dead, so this is a good sign."
In an hour Kristina had to pick up her son from daycare. "They get angry if I'm five minutes late," she said, glancing at the clock. The daycare was within walking distance from both the shop and her apartment.
"I liked our conversation yesterday about bigness. I was wondering if it had other ramifications for me. Maybe big art isn't beautiful. I realized that I'm most affected by small paintings in museums. Such as a Vermeer, or a Van Eyck. Even a Van Gogh. Could it be that big is ugly, and small is beautiful, even in painting? Think of all the beautiful things in life that are small."
"Like butterflies. Hummingbirds."
"Flowers. Kittens. Jewelry. Then consider all the big ugly things. Big animals, big armies. Big means power, and power is ugly. It has value, it counts, but it's ugly."
"And our gallery is small."
"It is. And I'm going to start celebrating the fact. For too many years I felt pressure to make big art. But my small canvases are the best ones. Even people seem to recognize this. My next lover will be under five foot. Maybe she'll be a midget. By the way, I met one of your friends. He came in right before I closed last night."
"I heard. That's a long story in itself."
"I have a problem, and I thought maybe you could tell me what I can do about it," Elsa said.
They were sitting at the gallery. He had just finished making a small bronze hand, and was filing off a few rough spots. Elsa had walked down from her nearby apartment.
She looked very striking, especially when she was in something other than her spattered painting overalls. With her thick, brown hair down, and sporting the gold pendant he bought her several years ago. She never took it off.
It gave him a twinge of sorrow when he saw how much she liked it. She could have married well by now and had a drawer full of expensive jewelry. She'd make a good catch for some guy. Not him. But someone.
"This one man, he keeps calling me, and I don't know how to break the news to him that it's not going to happen."
"Just tell him."
"What should I say? He has this awful crush on me but I'm not in the least bit attracted to him. It was just like this other guy in college who worshipped me but I had to finally tell him that he was physically unappealing. He went crazy after that! He sobbed and carried on. I was worried he was going to kill himself, or even kill me. My mother said why did you say such a thing? But I didn't know how to end it. I hate to hurt people's feelings, but it's driving me nuts. No matter what I say, he says, no problem, I'll call you next week. He doesn't give up."
"I don't think a woman has come right out and said she finds me physically disgusting, but maybe they've felt that way."
"Well, you've seen this guy. I met him at your party the other night. Betsy told him to come. He's her friend. You can see my problem. There's no way. I don't even want to be seen with him in public."
"I remember being told by a woman that I wasn't her type. That seemed good enough. It made me back off. Just say that to him."
"What if he asks me about my type?"
"Just describe the opposite of him. What does he look like? I can't remember."
"Sort of stocky. You know. Broad. Short."
"Just tell him you only go with tall skinny men."
"But he might say I should have known that within five seconds of meeting him."
"Well, you've been trying to expand your horizon and go against your natural type, but it doesn't work."
"I have, actually. But, no, it doesn't work at all. It can't be done. I could never have sex with him."
"Then why waste your time? His time, too. He'll find someone somehow."
"He says he would even settle being my friend. But I don't want him for a friend. Is that terrible?
"No, of course not. Friendship is overrated anyway. You only need a few. And those slots are usually filled."
He and Elsa had had some wild nights together, but they were over. Funny how that seems to happen very naturally, given enough time, and if the two parties are in touch with their feelings.
But one of the novel things about Elsa in comparison to other lovers from his past is how they seemed to still have some level of communion in spite of the death of sexual desire.
But when he thought about the lack of desire it was his own desire that seemed very clear to him. He really wasn't sure that her desire died a simultaneous death, but he hoped it was so. It must have been true in her case, too, because she was no more angry about it than he was.
Still, they never directly dealt with the subject.
Just as well. Leave it alone.
When you removed sex from the menu he always wanted to put distance between himself and the women once in his life. He couldn't escape fast enough.
This current situation was a first. Was he becoming more mature? More fatigued? Disenchanted? Other-centered? Or simply old. He really couldn't say for sure.
But Elsa, the painter, the young, eccentric, amusing, isolated, gifted, pretty woman, couldn't very well be turned out in the cold. That wouldn't be right. Certainly not a very gentlemanly thing to do.
But it was more than sentimental idealism motivating him. He found her as interesting as any of his previous companions, male or female. He liked talking with her, and if she didn't appear for a few days, he ended up calling her.
"Face it. You're stuck with me," she told him not long ago.
He didn't answer her.
"Rainer's in a good mood lately," he said to his daughter.
"Very good," Kristina answered.
"He was a little concerned about moving out of his home and into a new apartment."
"But it's starting to look good. He has your painting on the wall, and one of our dining tables."
Kristina inherited her mother's keen design sense. And she was able to help set up her husband's new digs.
"Well, I have to hand it to both of you. Why should breaking up be any different than coming together? Why aren't people as happy to have something end as they were in having it begin?"
"Because it never was a good choice in the first place?"
"Oh, and guess what. He met that painter last night. Gottfried. You know, the one in the book we have."
"Gottfried?" He thought for a few seconds. "Oh, Gottfried Helnwein. No kidding. Where did he meet him?"
"At the rich woman's place. She's friends with him, and has a lot of his art in her home. Also with one of yours. I think Rainer may like her. And he really hit it off with the artist. Maybe because they're both Austrian."
LA is the strangest place. It feels like nothing is connected with nothing. Everything is fragmented and swirling about chaotically. But then these peculiar soft, bright collisions happen seemingly out of nowhere.
About ten years ago he was browsing through a thrift store in North Hollywood, and he came across this heavy, well-produced art book. It had a picture of a young girl's face on the cover. He immediately thought it might be an artist who paints children's portraits. He picked it up and was very taken with some of the images. The man was an important contemporary artist.
He had never heard of the painter, a guy a little younger than himself. He bought the book for a laughable price. $15. Since then he's discovered that the artist lives in Los Angeles and has a large studio downtown.
Rainer walked in as they were talking. "So you heard about my new friend. I told him we had his book laying open on our coffee table. It's the only one there. A good guy. He has a castle in Ireland."
Rainer laughed. It was good to see him happy. He'd been so pre-occupied for the last ten years. So anxious about earning a living, and being a husband and a father. And reluctant to start on a new adventure, and conceivably put an end to his dismay. But things were working out.
Sometimes people have to separate for the sake of a greater unity. Not a pattern for everyone, but maybe just a rare few.
"I live here. It's my home. But there is one thing about LA that bothers me. Why can't people in this city say yes or no? Is it that hard?" said Elsa.
He'd heard this complaint before. And kept hearing it. He racked his brain for a simple answer to her lament.
"They do say yes or no. It's just not as obvious as in other cities."
"In New York if I went into a gallery and showed them an example of my paintings, they immediately said no, we won't show your work. If I looked for a job, even a stupid job like a hostess at a restaurant, they said yes, be here at five, or no, we're not hiring. But in LA they say we'll call you tomorrow, or check back with us, or else nothing at all."
"Well, I guess they have a more difficult time being curt and blunt."
"Blunt I can accept. I can deal with it. Otherwise days pass and I keep wondering if they're going to call."
"Maybe it comes from the entertainment industry. They set the tone. When my daughters were acting, and had auditions, no one ever called them back to say no, they didn't get the part. Why not realize that non-communication means no?"
"But why not come right out and say it? If feels so evasive and false otherwise."
"Well, when you have a hundred people looking for a single role you'd spend your life sending out rejection letters, or making phone calls offering condolences. It's just not the way they do business here. Look, you can't expect to change LA, so why not change yourself? That's still possible."
"I don't expect to change LA. I'm merely describing a common and ridiculous situation."
"I understand. People seem charmless. Robotic. It can be frustrating. But it's easier to adjust, or move on."
"I don't want to move on. How can I? I don't even have enough gas in my truck to come over to the studio today. We won't get our Sunday pizza. I have $1.50 to my name. I had $3.50 in my bank account and I went to the teller and asked for a roll of quarters so I could do my laundry."
"Tomorrow get on the phone. Start calling everyone and try to sell your paintings."
"I've already called everyone I know, and they're not buying."
"Then start on those you don't know. Find a list of galleries, furniture stores, interior designers, restaurants, coffee houses, boutiques, and get dialing. It's cheaper and more useful than driving around aimlessly. Listen, I did it for twenty years. Maybe longer. I didn't want to do it. I didn't enjoy doing it. But I needed the money. Call until you get a positive reply. A positive reply means someone is buying paintings, and you can walk away with a check today. Right now. Not in the future. Take what you can get. Use your wits. That's why God gave them to you."
"They might say, oh, we love them, but our buyer is not in today, can you leave them?"
"Consider that a no. You can't afford to wait more than an hour. Go somewhere else. LA County has ten million people. Somebody needs a painting. Somebody has money."
"That's your job to find them. A painter is someone who makes and sells paintings. You need to learn both sides of the coin. I've seen you improve so much in the last ten years. In the beginning, you were shy. You didn't know how to make a sale. Now you're getting so much better. But you can become even more of an adept."
Oh, man. What did he know? Less than nothing.
But when pushed he'd impart to a willing listener the very little he'd learned from his unconventional life .
He told Elsa something he read about Monet. This painter was broke until forty, really hard up. Even his first wife died as a result. And he used to go out and knock on doors late at night, begging his friends to buy one of his immortal canvases.
Was it fun for him? Was it something he dreamed about as a kid? But he did what the situation required. He swallowed his pride, trampled on his self-image, and banged on many locked doors. People hated to see him coming. But he kept coming.
Is your self-regard more important than your art?
Then maybe you should try some other field.
It would be hard to over-estimate the satisfaction, the pure joy, he received when he discovered a small innovation in his painting technique. These insights generally happened as he was in the act of making a new painting.
Even the most relentless mental searching was useless in comparison to physically doing something connected with his craft. It was then that inspiration was inclined to strike.
Today it was a simple gesture that he'd done over a thousand times, but somehow a light went off as he was covering the canvas with a final layer of varnish.
He usually poured some clear polyurethane into a can and brushed it over the surface. But now he dumped it directly on the painting, taking care to cover a certain word. It took place in the sunlight, and everything was brighter. He had a lightning flash.
The varnish formed a thick transparent puddle. He'd seen such things on other people's art, and even on his own, but today he discovered new potential from this mainly unconscious act. It happened in slow motion, the varnish spreading like honey. A single act separated into previously hidden parts. It was like seeing through a thin crack into a newly revealed world.
These epiphanies were not subject to inside or outside pressure. They couldn't be called up at will. They came like a thief in the night. But they were invaluable. Without them his art stalled, and came to a agonizing halt.
The painting discovery seemed to set off a chain of thinking about other areas disconnected to the painting process.
He drove to the gallery in a hazy trance of happiness.
But he took a different route, going through downtown. His hot plate had conked out, and he went to a discount electronic store on Hill. There he found a single burner for $13. It might last a year. It'd be worth it if it did. He'd grown used to cheap things breaking down, and being tossed in the garbage.
Then he stopped at a jewelry supply store on Olive. He parked his pickup in a loading zone. An unanticipated benefit of owning a truck. You were allowed twenty free minutes in all loading zones. Even longer if you left your emergency lights blinking.
At the supply store he bought a ring sizing tool, and a special rounded pliers, for making circular shapes without crimping the bronze.
The salesmen behind the counter at the store eyed him curiously. He'd appear at intervals and buy one or two small items.
It was a good day.
Elsa hadn't been able to call him because her phone was being cut off. She wrote an email asking him to call.
"I notice your phone now answers with a tune," he said after dialing it twice.
"That means they're about the disconnect it completely."
"Oh. Well, what's up?"
"I'm walking back from the pharmacy. I have three dollars left from yesterday. I bought some tampons."
"How is that good?"
"Well, you can at least take care of yourself." He wasn't sure how to phrase it.
"Yes, that leaves fifty cents for dinner. What about you?"
"Nothing much. A guy from Boston called back about a painting. I guess he wants it, for sure."
"Good for you. If my phone dies, I can live without it, but they're also threatening to turn off the electricity."
"That would be rough, although I've lived without electricity."
"When? Forty years ago?"
"Around then, yes. When I build my cabin and lived in the Canadian bush."
"Today it's very different. No one does that any more."
"I'm sure a few still do. It actually was easy enough, for a little while."
"So why did you leave?"
"There was no money. I had to come back to the city."
"It always comes down to money. There's never enough money. If I had enough money I'd be the happiest woman. You'd hear no complaints."
"It always seems that way when you're in the hole, and down to your last fifty cents. But if you ever had enough money you'd just have new complaints."
"Why do you say that? You're so negative about me."
"Not about you. About the way humans are."
He plunged into gloomy thoughts about money. His money, other people's money, the whole issue of money. He never understood it that well, and the role it played in everyone's lives.
He supposed it was like credit earned for work done. But the world had so many different ways of crediting people, and also how work itself was interpreted and valued.
It was hard to imagine life without money. And the complicated attitudes that go along with it.
Kristina had less now that she was separated from her husband, and father of her three-year old son. But at least Rainer was beginning to make more money than ever, mainly due to training celebrities, fixing their neglected bodies, starting them on a healthier regimen. Plus, he was generous with his family.
"I told my tenant, Todd, that I was having a difficult time financially, and I'd have to raise his rent. He went crazy. He starting yelling that my changed situation had nothing to do with him, and that it was selfish of me to make him pay for it, and on and on. He became hysterical. His lips were covered in white foam. He had to go to his room and try to compose himself. It shocked me."
"Todd? Well, that is bizarre. Doesn't he have a good job?"
"Yes, he's a vice president at this corporation. He doesn't even own a car. He has no friends, no expenses, and he even comes from money. His parents are well-off, and I guess they've spoiled him."
"I wonder why it struck such a nerve? What's his problem?"
"For one thing, he's very tight with money. I didn't realize it until recently. And since Rainer moved out, Todd is more inclined to come out of his room and spread himself around in the apartment. He never, ever, has done a speck of work to keep the place in order. He's not a slob, but he leaves crumbs everywhere without thinking twice. And he's never once taken the garbage out. When the can is really full, he puts his bag on top where it teeters."
"It's time he moved on."
"He's already left twice, and then came back, completely caught up with his own situation, and not caring a bit about us, and how it would affect our finances. But I never protested. I never said a word when he announced he was moving in with his lover."
"He seems completely devoid of empathy. I can only guess at his mentality. I don't understand miserliness."
"No, that's not one of our vices."
"I guess you have to be rich to be a miser. No one is miserly in my neighborhood. Because no one has any money. Maybe the world has always had two types. Misers and spendthrifts. They must need each other."
"I guess we're not good with money."
"Good? It depends on how you understand that virtue."
"We're good at sharing the little money we have."
"And not good at clutching every penny like grim death."
A young man strode into the gallery.
"Do you speak French?" he asked at once.
"But Cloud Noir. It means black cloud, doesn't it? I guess cloud is English, though."
"Do you make these? They're cool. That's also French." He pointed to c'est la vie on a painting. "And so is that." amour.
"I like using common foreign words and phrases on my pieces."
"I do art, too. Not on canvas. Not using paint. I draw."
"Do you have an example of your work?"
"Sure." He took out his phone and found a pen sketch of a rose.
"I did it yesterday. I really need to get some sleep. I see a lot of roses everywhere. Why is that?"
"Maybe because Valentine's Day is coming up?"
"I just give my drawings away. I wouldn't feel right about selling them."
"Why not? What better way to earn a living than selling the art you make?"
"That's not my goal. I want to be an actor. I have a private teacher and I'm studying plays. Now I'm starting to study French plays. I memorized about fifty monologues of American plays before that. Long passages! I have them down. Do you know Edward Albee?"
"He wrote Zoo Story. I have a monologue from that play. It was the first one he wrote."
"I don't hear much about Edward Albee these days. I guess he died a few years ago. Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf is his most famous play."
"Oh, right. It is. What's it about?"
"And Streetcar Named Desire. No, that's by someone else."
"What French playwrights are you studying?"
"A whole pile of them. I tried to memorize a monologue from someone named . . . Freyder. Something like that. But his language was ancient."
"No. Something else. What does she do?"
"She's my daughter Kristina, and she designs the tables." Kristina was staining a table as the student rattled on.
"I could make that. I really need to get some sleep. Want to hear a joke I made up? And also a poem I wrote?"
He told a joke that had something to do with the French not being good at fast food because "snails are so slow."
His poem was a mercifully brief bit of doggerel that used plenty of rhymes: sweater, better, shredder.
"I have to be going. I'll stop back when I've had enough sleep."
After he left the old artist turned to his daughter. "I wonder what his parents think of him?"
"I wonder what his parents have done to him?" Kristina said.
"I used to think screwed up people were screwed up because of their early family pressures, but I don't know anymore. I also wonder if I was like that at his age."
"I doubt it."
"No. I was pretty strange. Very strange."
The phone rang. He could see that it was placed from his studio, where Elsa was painting.
"I'm finished for the day. I have to leave now to beat the traffic. Could I have a package of that pasta?" she asked.
"Otherwise I'm not going to eat today. I wish I had something to put on it."
"Open my fridge. Take a tomato, and also a red bell pepper. It might work."
"This is so ghetto. I'm embarrassed. Thanks. But what I'd really like is some of that espresso. I haven't had any coffee for two days."
"Pour three heaping tablespoons in that glass jar with the plunger. So I'll be able to have coffee tomorrow morning, and then take the rest of the bag home. You're welcome to it."
"Thanks. And, please, can we get pizza on this Sunday? I haven't had any booze all week. I'm going nuts."
He was so exuberant only a few days ago because of a new development in his painting style. But it appears his joy was not fully warranted.
He tried to put his idea into practice, and he ended up plastering over the sorry mess. He was dejected, and felt ridiculous.
As a result his painting slowed down, the few pieces he made were facile throwbacks. He had to keep working, even if the work was repetitive, and dull. At least in his eyes. Maybe others would like them.
But as he was washing his hands this morning he stopped cold and his eyes took on a faraway look. Maybe the technique simply required some small changes. In a few minutes he'd figured out a way to do it after all. It restored his well-being.
He visualized a significantly different look to his future paintings.
At least until he tried once again to do something unprecedented.
But in this respect contemporary artists are no different than scientists working in a lab. It's a slow process of trial and error, that continues often thanklessly for years. Why give up now?
And so he recovered most of his poise by the time he arrived at the gallery. Kristina had finished staining and varnishing the new tables and photographed them for the website. They looked great, especially with one of his paintings in the background.
She then showed him a magazine where a celebrity had filled out an interview. She pointed at the singer's motto, which was so-so.
"Do you have a motto?"
"Not really. I did have one that I dreamed up when I was 21."
"That's pretty young."
"It is. And it still sounds pretty good today, after all these experiences and misadventures. Live each moment perfectly."
"That seems right. I have one I just thought up. Never regret being sweet."
"I like it. It sounds original, and it's definitely you."
Kristina's mother was a very intelligent born and bred Manhattanite. The old artist wasn't exactly a dimwit either. And so they managed to create a smart kid.
But it was a much different type of intelligence from the kind either parent possessed. Kristina was less demonstrative, less conflicted, more even-keeled. Her father was very relieved with her character. She was definitely milder and more rational than both of her parents.
His daughter rarely departed from her sweet style. And it gave her no regrets, it seems.
A little later on, Elsa wandered in with her little dog, Sappho. He'd bought her Sappho almost ten years ago, and the dog never left Elsa's side, removing some of the pangs of solitude.
"Such a good doggy," he said, petting the animal.
"She has the softest fur. It's because I bathe her so often."
"Very soft. Mommy can turn you in a muff when you die . . . "
"Don't talk to her like that! How terrible."
"You're right. I apologize. It was an atrocious remark. Forgive me, Sappho."
"She will not forgive you."
"She already has. Haven't you, Sappho? Look at her tail wag! She knows I was just joking. We often tell each other funny stories when you're not around, and share a good laugh."
The dog curled up at the artist's feet while he continued to pet her.
"No one should talk meanly to any living thing. Even in fun. I learned my lesson many years ago," he said.
"But you just did."
"It was wrong, and I said I'm sorry. Once when I was stoned I leaned down and said something to a rose. It wasn't very nice, and I actually saw the rose shrivel up and go pale."
"You were just hallucinating."
"I don't think so. It definitely cringed."
"What did you say?"
"Well, I just quoted a few words from a poem by Blake. I casually said o, rose, thou art sick. The effect was instantaneous. I've always felt miserable about what I did. It was a real sin. I've never forgotten it."
"They weren't even your words."
"The rose didn't seem to notice that I was quoting."
He awoke, made a pot of espresso, and logged on. The anxiety of his daily life hadn't struck yet. He was relaxed as he browsed the news, going down the menu of his favorite sites.
The one place he was most tempted to skip was the daily science site. But out of a mixture of curiosity and duty he opened the page.
Oddly enough, it was often more interesting than even the celebrity gossip sites, which offered the latest scandal, which he always relished.
He read about a study of human faces, and how they differentiated the sexes, responding to an evolutionary drive. It was a good article, simply backing up and clarifying what he vaguely understood to be true.
Women had developed a biological strategy for continuing, and even perfecting, the species. They intensified their sex appeal over long stretches of time. In this case the researcher had noted that women's faces gradually pushed their attractive contrasts to an effective extent. That is, they darkened the area around the eyes, reddened their lips, evened out their skin tone, and made their hair stand out like a dazzling frame. Beauty spots helped. Anything that caught the healthiest, most dominant males in the net of their hypnotic beauty gave them an edge.
In addition this explained the universal use of female make-up.
As he read the results he thought about his own life and the women who had played a major part. It was true, he was a sucker for certain patterns, entrancing configurations, and bewildering movements. He was a male, and an easy prey to these veiled mysteries. He barely grasped the meaning of his behavior.
It humbled him to realize that he was mostly a puppet of his genetic endowment. Yet he also sensed that he had a hand on the tiller of his frail ship. He could say yes or no to anything. Always.
When he heard someone pronounce these words his blood boiled: "I had no choice." What monstrous stupidity. What bottomless ignorance.
Brain-dead humanity. Is there no end to its hopeless naivete?
He walked to the back of studio just to clear his head. After a few moments he picked up a well-prepared blank canvas and began work.
Within five minutes he felt much better.
But he kept returning to the problem. In his mind he compared scientists and artists, not sure which group he tended to respect most.
Nor could he say with assurance who led the parade of civilization.
Scientists worked slowly, but made headway.
Artists went faster, changing frequently, but didn't progress.
Science improved, but art stayed the same. Or got worse.
He kept painting.
"So, how do you like the new door?" he asked, proudly.
"It's on the wrong side. Why did you change the way it opened?" Elsa said, looking very disapproving.
"I wanted to see how it would work this way."
"Well, it's wrong. It makes it harder to carry our paintings inside. There's less room to stand when we're unlocking it."
"We'll get used to it," he muttered.
But they didn't. This conversation took place two weeks ago, and he's been on the defensive ever since.
Today he dismantled his previous efforts and flipped the door around, in its old position, opening from right to left against the building wall. He was forced to admit he had made a mistake. But it took him two weeks to figure out how he could correct it painlessly, and without spending an extra dime.
"How long is that going to take?" asked Elsa, as she painted.
"Hey. It's going smoothly and quickly."
He finished it in an hour, which was nothing compared to the day long effort in the first place. He manfully owned up to his error and made it right. He wasn't a stubborn jerk.
"Let's hit it."
They turned out the lights in the studio and drove to the pizza joint a mile away. It was crowded, and the manager was friendly and glad to see them.
Elsa began by telling a story about an incident in her class yesterday. She teaches silkscreening techniques to adults and had a run-in with a jealous woman.
"People in love always think everyone is in love with the person they're in love with. I complimented this guy about his work and his girl friend got steamed. I walk around talking as the class works and I mentioned this pastry shop across the street and how they had a great looking carrot cake for sale, and how I love carrot cake. But they usually don't make it correctly. The same guy piped up that carrot cake was also his favorite, too. Then a few minutes later he left and came back carrying three little boxes. One of them had a slice of carrot cake and he gave it to me. It's expensive, at seven dollars a piece, but it's huge with many layers and delicious. Well, I then said casually, I guess I have a teacher's pet, and his girl friend fumed and snarled something. The rest of the class went silent and bent down over their work. People are so socially immature in LA. They aren't that way in New York."
"But why chalk it up to a particular place? Call it human nature. Jealousy and possessiveness are universal."
"I'm sorry, but I feel this city is really lacking in social sophistication."
"Well, if you have such high social skills why didn't you recognize that the couple was insecure and there was no need to aggravate the problem?"
"What? I'm supposed to reinforce her juvenile behavior? Certainly not."
"So it's your job to set the world straight?"
Elsa argued her case until they wore out the topic. It wasn't the first time he'd heard similar stories from her. She insisted that she was right and wouldn't change just to cater to another person's childishness.
She often complained at her lack of friends, but some of the cause might be traced to her flagrant self-assertion that she valued more highly than any superficial group harmony.
He often felt dismay at the young woman's unbending style. He sensed how it was hurting her chances in life. But he saw no point in trying to change her.
A little later she recited another incident.
"As I was driving to the studio this afternoon, I pulled up to a stoplight on Crescent Heights and there was an old black man with a cane. He was very old, and he walked up to my truck with a cup in his hand. I rolled down my window and was going to give him some change when I realized I didn't have any, just a five dollar bill. Which is all the money I had to my name. And then the light turned green and the car behind me was honking so I started moving. But I turned the corner and then decided to take a u-turn, which I did, afraid that a cop would see me. But I went back to the intersection and with another u-turn found the old man and gave him my five dollars. He said bless you, young lady, bless you. I knew you were taking me out for pizza, so I didn't need the money. And when I looked back he was already gone. I guess that was all he needed. Five bucks."
As they walked to the truck after dinner he pulled a five out of his pocket and stuffed it in her purse.
"What're you doing? Don't do that."
"That's for being so nice to the old black man."
"He reminded me of you."
Everyone needs time.
He drove further into East LA searching for a builder's supply business that his former carpenter, Rudolpho, told him about. He was looking for old, weathered lumber. A guy came into the gallery on Saturday and ordered a very funky table. It has to be made from beaten up wood with peeling paint. And be as perfectly imperfect as it can be.
They liked using reclaimed wood, but didn't have the time to go scrounging for planks. When he first arrived in town he often drove down alleys stopping to pick up something that could be turned into art. Or even placed in his home, as a furnishing. His kitchen table with a butcher block top and iron legs bolted on to it is one such piece. He discovered it behind a newly closed restaurant.
This morning he found the store not far from his studio on First Street. He walked through the yard full of bricks, concrete blocks, architectural elements, sand, roofing tiles, old doors, rebar, and, best of all, piles of lumber that would be ideal for their tables.
"I'll give you a good price. Come back when you're ready," the owner said
"I'll be back very soon. We're ready."
Just to show that he was serious, he ended up buying a cheap hatchet, that he needed for making kindling. He took it back to the studio and sharpened the blade with his angle grinder, and tried it out on a few scraps of wood leftover from his stretchers. It worked like a dream.
The weather had turned again, and he'd have to fire up his stove tonight.
He told his daughter about their good luck in locating a source for used lumber.
"It's good because we're getting more orders," she said. People from the LA area, out of state, and up in San Francisco.
She'd been designing the tables for over a year, and came up with many modifications, both big and small. It surprised him to see how complex something as simple as a flat top with four legs could be. The mutations were endless. At first he was reluctant to begin learning furniture manufacturing at his age, but little by little, he was drawn into the field.
"I went to the flea market yesterday and Ben was there still selling his tables. But they looked worse than I remember them," his daughter said.
Ben supplied the gallery with tables and benches when they first opened. Kristina told him what they wanted, and he obliged. Most of the time. But he wasn't that easy to work with.
"He didn't carry on with my suggestions, and he seems to have gone back to his old style," she said. "I'm glad we're not involved with him any more."
"It's a familiar story. I noticed things like that when I would live with a woman, and after breaking up with her, she'd toss out all traces of the shared life we once had. She reverted to type, and it wasn't an improvement on what we once had. I then saw her in the raw state. How she was before we met. And it wasn't that appealing. I guess I was blinded by her temporary acceptance of my lifestyle. Of my attitudes."
When you remove yourself from the picture it can look very different.
His property taxes weighed on him. He didn't owe that much, but it was a lot for a painter during a global economic slump. Artists were the first to feel it, and the last to recover.
When you can't feed your kids, or pay the utility bills, you aren't thinking of buying a painting.
It depressed him to envision himself as something superfluous to his culture. Something people could ignore in stressful times.
But maybe art has always been that way. It flourishes when stomachs are filled, and external threats vanish. Then you might hear music, and see dancing, surrounded by carvings and paintings.
He wasn't sure what to do next. But laying around waiting for something to happen didn't seem to be a wise choice.
He consulted his inner oracle. He held silent dialogues with some obscure part of himself. This hidden entity didn't say much, and only spoke when questioned. If the oracle answered it was in a blended sound of many people he'd know along the way. But the final pronouncement was always in the familiar tones of his own voice.
He sat down and composed a letter to his brothers. He came from a large family of many brothers and a solitary sister, who balanced the male predominance.
He described his difficulties and sent out a proposal. He'd make paintings for everyone if they could fire off some money before the end of the month, when payment was due. He suggested portraits and pieces for their homes and offices. It was somewhat humiliating to reveal his money troubles, especially after a long period of relative success, but why disguise it?
Tell it like it is. It'd been years since he was forced to pass the hat in a circle to his family. And the family wasn't what it once was when they all lived in a big house together. That was long gone. A fading memory. History.
The grasshopper and the ants. Some of his brothers were industrious and had laid up resources for a rough, wintry patch. He was a grasshopper who had jumped around, heedless of the coming troubles.
But was this really the case? He wasn't a slacker. He'd worked every day of his life. The ants had nothing on him. They took vacations, relaxed, counted their money.
The fable somehow didn't apply. Something else was underneath it all. Some new myth was being formed. He hadn't comprehended it yet, but it would be clear. Someday.
"I'm going to bring this painting over to the gallery. I want you to see it before I deliver it," Elsa said.
"What about it?"
"I can't tell if it's too good or not. He only paid me a few hundred dollars, so I was thinking of keeping this and making another one for him instead."
She pulled up behind the store and unloaded a heavily textured large painting. She'd painted over an abstract canvas. The new one was basically on top of the old one, since the previous work showed through. It was now covered with words and images from several of his earlier, rarely used silkscreens. She often used his screens, and gave them her characteristic twist.
He looked at it.
"Yeah. It's too good to be sold at that price."
"I can make something else tomorrow. But this has worn me out."
"It's a shame to let it go so cheaply. Is he in a hurry for it?"
"He keeps calling and asking how it's turning out?"
"Maybe you better give it to him and start on something else. You don't want to make a weaker version."
"No, but I could just make something different. I think it's good because of the texture."
"I think it has to do with blue and yellow colors of the abstraction showing through."
"How can I justify selling it for that price?"
It was growing dark, and windy. He wondered how much longer Elsa could keep it up. Being a painter, and only a painter, is a rocky climb.
"A woman wrote and asked about a piece in the window. She said she loved it and wanted to know the price."
"I get that all the time. I write and tell them, and then I never hear back," she said.
"Right. I said my prices fluctuate depending on how desperate I am for money. When I've hit bottom I sell them for next to nothing. Disgracefully underpriced. When I'm feeling a little flush the price climbs."
"Well, I have around seven dollars to my name."
"Can you think of anyone else who'll spring for it?"
He sighed. With Elsa it was like re-living his own life thirty years ago. He re-experienced all her frustration and dejection.
He was a mixture of intense fellow-feeling and equally intense coolness. He cultivated a kind of spiritual detachment from everything, and everyone. But this separateness had its limits. He had no taste for an inhumane aloofness. It was unnatural and went against his grain.
"I guess if it was me I'd hand it over and move along. You need the cash."
"I do. No one knows it better than me at this point."
The studio was cold in the morning, but not enough to fire up his new wood stove. That only happened at night.
Having a choice, however, seemed to warm him. That, and the strong Southern California sun pouring in the back window. Also through the cracks in the door that his carpentry couldn't manage to seal. Instead he dabbed some plaster between the wooden frame and the concrete blocks. He couldn't work on it forever.
He looked at his reflection in the small mirror hanging over his sink. He liked what he saw, primarily because he knew how to get his best features positioned so it didn't depress him.
He couldn't have predicted that he'd have nothing to complain about in his physical form at this age. Seeing how he disliked his face for almost his entire life leading up to this moment.
Why was he suddenly happy with his body? Was it because it no longer mattered?
He'd let his thin grey hair grow out. Until recently he'd been going to a barber a few times a year. He even shaved his head completely. Probably to please Elsa. About that time after a night of carousing they got matching gold eyebrow rings.
That didn't last. The hole was even gone.
Nor did he like the effort to keep his head bare down to the pink scalp, given what little advantage there was.
Still, he didn't want to be mistaken for a homeless wreck.
But after thinking it over he decided that being mistaken for being homeless was better than being mistaken for a banker. Not that anyone ever made that error. Not even during the brief time he wore three-piece sharkskin suits. Long ago. In a different life. On a different planet.
"I guess there isn't a cure for love," Kristina said, as he walked into the gallery.
She'd developed a crush on a new man. But she tried to nip it in the bud. By keeping her distance, and not running into him.
"I tried to de-toxify myself, but I don't think it's working."
"So many kinds of love. Some you can ignore, and they tend to die a natural death. But others are more like a splinter. You can't just forget about it. It only makes it worse."
"I think this is the splinter variety."
"Well, some ancient Greeks had a surefire cure for love. They just turned and silently pointed to a high cliff with rocks at its base."
"That's pretty extreme. But is it really a perfect solution? What if you wake up in another world and still feel that way?"
"Oh, then as long as you have a soul your love exists. But, on the other hand, love dies. It happens all the time."
"Then maybe it was never love in the first place."
"I prefer to think of it as simply changing into something less obsessive, like two branches on the tree of life gradually beginning to fork."
Maybe love doesn't die after all.
But it has to eventually release a person from its searing grip.
The ball started bouncing his way again. He never knew how long such a thing lasts. But it was a relief.
His brothers all immediately answered the call. They each agreed to new paintings and sent him a check right away.
It filled him with serene pride in his family. Other families may have acted differently. He'd heard too many stories of estrangement, hostility, and outright hatred between siblings, or parents and offspring. He was lucky to have found himself in the midst of loving group. And quite successful, too.
On top of that, he'd sold some paintings, and a few pieces of jewelry. Also, Kristina's tables had their best month so far.
All this lifted the mood around the studio and gallery. It's true that Elsa was still struggling, but at least he was now in a position to be somewhat helpful. Even if it was nothing more than having her stretch a few canvases.
"I love these!" a woman said as she rushed into the gallery. She picked up the bronzes. "Last night I was at a restaurant and saw one of your rings on a woman's finger. I asked where she got it, and she told me."
"I wonder who it was?"
"I don't know, but this is wonderful. I'm a jewelry dealer, and I represent another artist who lives in Mexico. Would you wholesale them? I have a showroom in New York."
"I don't even consider myself a jeweler. I just enjoy making these. I suppose I could wholesale them, although I haven't so far. I only make one a day."
"But if I ordered fifty could you do it?"
"Well, it'd take some time."
"I mean over a few months."
"In that case, yeah, I could make that many. Actually I used to create about a dozen a day at one time. But they weren't that good. These take time. I like working slowly on them."
"We're going to dinner now. Here. I want to buy this one." She put it on her finger, and pulled out cash from her purse. "Go to my website. You'll see my business. Oh, we're going to do well! Can I give you a hug?"
He said yes. It's not right for a man in public to suggest a hug from a woman he's never seen before, but women find it perfectly acceptable to initiate contact, and it happens more often than you'd imagine.
She then quickly left, dragging a companion behind her.
He was still thinking of the embrace, and how she felt in his arms. What did it mean, really?
He picked up one of his rings and examined it. He wished it was gold instead of bronze, and was more determined than ever to tackle that situation.
But he wasn't tempted by the siren of high production. He was finally clear about that, whether in painting, jewelry, sculpture, or writing.
No, never again. Peace comes dropping slowly. He was learning to linger over his creations, to get beyond the nervous itch to finish everything in nothing flat.
"Would you go up to a man in a shop you don't know and give him a hug?" he asked his daughter.
"I don't think I've ever done that."
"And you definitely wouldn't want to hug someone ugly, or weird."
"I'm surprised when it happens to me. Being hugged, I mean. Especially when I'm so passive and neutral. I never make the slightest move in that direction. But it wasn't always that way."
However, instead of congratulating himself on his huggable nature he wondered if he was unconsciously sending out signals that he needed some affection.
This thought was not that pleasant to entertain.
He took Elsa downtown to Little Tokyo, to one of their favorite restaurants. It was a favorite mainly because the prices were lower than others in that area.
They used to go out several times a week, back in the heyday. But not lately. Maybe never again.
"Everything costs more. When we started coming here, it was so much cheaper. But our paintings haven't gone up that much."
"Mine have gone down in price," she said.
They ordered, and he sat back in the booth. They were only here because he'd sold a few pieces, and was feeling not as destitute.
"We used to do this nearly every night. But it eventually didn't mean that much. Today it feels like a celebration," he said, pouring himself a glass of red wine. "Today Kristina and I were talking. We asked each other what we felt about romance and finance. What's more important?"
"Well, neither as far as I'm concerned."
"I can understand your position. But would you settle for romance without finance, or finance without romance?"
"Romance, obviously. Most of the men in my life are broke. They always are. If I walk into a room I always seem to pick out the ones without a job, or with a low paying job. The bartenders or musicians or something like that."
"So you'd never have sex with someone ugly just because he had money."
"Think of how many men have offered me just that. But here I am. Alone. Without a nickel to my name. I just can't be with a gross guy, no matter how much money he has."
"I guess we're romantics. Even you."
"No. I'm not. Maybe you and the other people in your life are, but I'm not. Apparently from what you say, your daughter is. But you've never heard me complain that I don't have a boy friend, or a husband, or a child, or a home. I only want enough money to keep painting. That's my passion. I have no other dreams."
"Well, maybe if you had enough money, and your paintings were where you wanted them to be, your thoughts might turn to love."
"Maybe, but until that time . . . "
He'd known Elsa long enough to know that she believed what she was saying. She had a dry, unsmiling, determined style.
She believed in getting everything in your life well-ordered and materially prosperous before you even thought about starting a family. It was a good theory, but such a concept might bring the human race to an end.
Elsa was no longer a twenty-something embarking on a career. She was in her mid-thirties, but she gave no hint of feeling the pressure of her clock ticking. She already had adjusted to the idea that her destiny was unlike anything that her friends and family valued.
She was different and would remain that way.
"So I drove down and visited Barry. You remember him," Elsa said.
"I do, and what was the point of that?"
"He wanted me to show him how to make silkscreens."
"How nice for him. But what has he ever done for you? I hate it when men exploit women."
"I'm getting something out of it. He and his girl friend gave me dinner, and he's going to photograph my paintings. He really takes professional photos."
"So now he's a photographer? I thought he had a band?"
"Barry's very talented. He used to paint. He's a great sculptor. He plays the guitar, and writes his own music . . . "
"It doesn't seem like a fair exchange. Remember that woman who called you on the phone, and then came to the studio? After a few hours with us she now sells her silkscreened art and makes a living."
"I didn't show Barry how we do our paintings. He wants to make tee shirts. I got along with his new girlfriend. She's twenty-four. He's in his forties. He was always older than me. She sat there and knitted while we talked. He told me about their life. Barry has always had this thing for nature, which I never shared, and he found a cabin out in the desert and they lived there for two years. It didn't have electricity or plumbing, which was bad enough, but she said she couldn't take the rats. She couldn't sleep at night because they were running all over the place. Plus she had to drive twenty miles to work everyday. She teaches at some kind of school for handicapped children. It sounded a little like your life in Canada."
"It seems like Barry lives off her. I never did that. Does Barry have any children?"
"No, he was married but they didn't have any."
"From that knitting she probably wants a baby."
"She does, and it's a real problem, because she'd have to quit her job, and Barry would have to figure out how to make money. I guess she comes from a family that's okay with her choices. Her father is an artist and her mother is a psychiatrist. I went to my Facebook page to show her some of my paintings and she was flabbergasted when she saw pictures of my family. I have photos of my brother's wedding, and she couldn't believe it. She asked if I was adopted. I told her no, and this is who I come from. She looked at everyone playing croquet at my sister's huge lawn and thought it was a gag. No, I said, it was real. She studied their expressions and said it looked as if they were actually enjoying it."
In a way it was their common backgrounds that brought the old artist and Elsa together. Both had come from conservative, upper-middle class Catholic homes, where total dedication to a life of anything except growing rich was unheard of. He didn't even meet an artist until he left his hometown. There was no such animal in their world as he was growing up.
Many artists come from humble backgrounds and when they discover that they have a gift their family rejoices and sees it as a way to separate itself from the toiling masses. A gift is a ticket to something greater and more splendid.
But this wasn't the case for these two. It meant a lifelong battle with unmet expectations, endless parental disapproval, and choosing a path of downward mobility. Not to mention explosive scenes at infrequent family reunions.
The rain came down during the night. It rattled on his roof like buckshot. As he laid in bed he hoped the pails in the corners of the studio caught most of the dripping water.
Even though it was darker than usual he knew it was time to get up. His feet groped along the concrete floor, searching for the shoes he placed at the side of the bed.
He refused to turn on the lights. It was morning. A gray chilly morning, but no reason for the overhead bulbs.
He found the switch on the hotplate and twisted the knob clockwise.
In a few moments the spiral heating element glowed orange. With the fridge door open he saw the sack of espresso on the wooden preparation table.
A pot of water was placed on the burner.
It was not a day for painting. Nothing dried. The studio was dank and felt emptier than ever. A few of Elsa's unfinished pieces lay on the floor and stacked against the wall, next to three of his.
He stood there, wondering what to do next. He then thought about the words a celebrated artist told him once. The sculptor mocked another well-known painter as "a guy who gets up every morning and starts painting." As if this was something laughable. The sculptor boasted of his own laziness, and a hatred for regular work habits.
But he personally was neither an everyday grind, nor an idler.
Later in the day at the gallery he turned on his torch and began work on another ring, since the stock was down. The heat of the torch warmed him, and he even burned his fingers on the hot mandrel as he carried it to the sink and have the cold water douse it.
The store was only a little better than his home, and no customer came in for the entire time it was open.
He had plastered three canvases, and made a bronze ring and a round, carved pendant. It was time to call it quits.
Another day, but how was it to be judged? What were the highs and lows?
He realized as he was welding the small ring, heating the places where the joins weren't seamlessly fused, that it was at that precise moment he felt most like who and what he was.
It felt so insignificant. So trivial, from one perspective. But also so timeless, and authentic. There was no pretentiousness when it came to creating a smooth unity of molten bronze. It took years of practice. Some clear concentration, and sensitivity. You had to get in at the right second, and get out just as fast.
Art was a way of going about it. A way of handling something.
Anything else was just a sad illusion.
The sun returned and the weather was bright and clear. He dragged two old canvases, used for soaking up the rain water on the floor, outside to dry off.
He then finished three small pieces. They were text works, expressions of the the strong emotions he once felt for the women in his life.
"I've been reading your manuscript where you explain the text art," Kristina said. "It's so good. It needs to be seen by people."
"Maybe I'll publish it. I can do it now by myself. I've always hated submitting anything to strangers. We can then have copies at the gallery and sell them to customers who buy a painting."
Chloe walked in. His older daughter. She kept more to herself. Among other things she wrote short stories. He was always glad to see her, and they embraced.
"I hear you have another job. That's fantastic, sweetheart."
She smiled. She had a ready, answering smile. Chloe lived in LA, and moved between several careers, abandoning one and taking up another. She was a few years older than Kristina, but was often mistaken for a few years younger.
She had just quit her last job at a pet store. It wasn't that congenial, but had formed a bridge between a secretarial position at a downtown law school and this new gig. She was now a personal assistant to a man and also his sister.
"The sister offered her fifteen dollars an hour, but Chloe held out for twenty," Kristina had said. The two sisters were very close, and best friends for their entire lifetime.
"How many days a week?" he asked.
"I guess four."
"But how did she figure this out?"
"I don't know, but it really suits her."
He recalled certain incidents where Chloe had anticipated his needs and bought him things, like sox or underwear, or given him directions to a good shipping company, a dentist, or even a dermatologist.
How did she know? It must be due to a very conscious empathy. Chloe knew what someone wanted and how to go about supplying it. It meant that she thought about them, what they lacked, and were too lazy or ashamed to admit.
But he had never glimpsed this hidden talent in his daughter, and how it could pay her way. It now made him very happy to see her following the threads of her own destiny. Independently of his help.
"A personal assistant! It's an excellent job in Hollywood."
Chloe blushed. "I'm glad you approve. Many people would hate to go out and buy someone a latte at Starbucks, but for me it's fun."
He didn't ask her about the writing. She filled notebooks, and occasionally sent out a short story. They were published in online magazines and sometimes in printed journals. She once was a journalist for a small, weekly newspaper.
He didn't want to be seen as pressuring her into more writing. Maybe this wasn't the time for that. It never brought in any money, which was more important from a practical angle. She could always turn to it later on. Or maybe forget about it.
Not every artist can live off their art. Nor should they tear themselves up trying.
But Chloe still used her typing skills. She now started writing ads for a website that sold purses. It belonged to the woman she helped.
"I like the idea of a personal assistant. Either do what you love, or else hire someone to do it," he said. "One person's life is a two-person job."
"I could never be an assistant," Elsa said on the phone, as she painted. "Being in the car all day. I'd tear my hair out. In New York, maybe. I could walk or ride my bike. But in LA, impossible."
He was at the gallery, having just finished another bronze pendant. It was a clunky, sincere looking object. When the bronze was about to melt he pressed a screwdriver into the surface and carved lines. Today it was "AMOR", written on two lines, his Latin take on a famous piece of pop art. Kristina would photograph it for the website.
Valentine's Day was coming up, and he hoped to sell a few things. He wondered if the pendant was too funky for a gift.
"A large number of people don't ever use the word funky," he said.
"That's true," said Kristina. "They don't understand its meaning."
"Right. I recall one time when my mother tried it out. She had it mixed up with sleazy. I had to correct her, but I didn't bother explaining the true definition. I knew it was beyond her. It simply didn't fit into her vision of life."
"A very conservative person would struggle to use it accurately in a sentence."
"They wouldn't be able to see the positive value of a funky person, place, or thing. Actually it's not part of Elsa's vocabulary. But she says she picked up the word glom from me."
The phone rang.
"Okay, I'm finished for the day. I see where you have three stretchers that need canvas. I can do that for you tomorrow. Thanks for buying the white, by the way," Elsa said.
"Do you have anything for dinner?"
"I only have $4. 35 in my bank account. But because of yoga and not eating I dropped some weight and look fabulous."
"Remember the rules. Not too much, or I'll have to ask you for your key to the studio."
"I have a long way to go."
Elsa was tall and thin, but had a history of neglecting herself. He'd set the boundaries: if her weight falls beneath 110 pounds he'd automatically banish her from the studio. He didn't want a skeleton floating around, being a danger to herself and even him.
"Open the fridge and take a red pepper."
"And also a tomato."
"And you can have the container of hummous."
"No! That's yours. Besides I don't have anything to put it on."
"Take it! And lift up the top to that aluminum cake cover and help yourself to a few slices of bread."
"No, my dog is with me and he'll go crazy."
"Put the bag in the truck bed."
He'd walked across the street earlier and bought some fresh vegetables at the Latino market. He didn't mind sharing them with her. It was certainly better than those 100 dollar sushi dinners of ten years ago. A vast improvement.
He prepared to hop on the 10 and go to the gallery. Before leaving, Elsa suddenly showed up.
She put her things down and walked over to where he was sitting.
"So, how is Rebecca?"
Rebecca was Kristina's mother. She was in town, with her current boyfriend, a retired lawyer from Connecticut.
He sensed that Elsa was slightly jealous. It was ridiculous, of course. He hadn't lived with Rebecca in nearly thirty years. But jealousy is a very peculiar emotion. People are often most jealous when they haven't the slightest reason to be. He almost laughed about it. But checked himself.
Never, ever, try to make someone jealous. You'll regret it.
"I saw her yesterday for the first time. She's been sick, and stayed in the motel."
"Sick? What's wrong?"
"Oh, just a cold. She's better now. They've decided to stay another week."
"But I thought they were going to San Francisco."
"No, Seattle. They already did. Well, I'm going to the store. Do you want anything for dinner?"
She paused, and thought about it.
"You can get me a sack of brown rice, and a sack of lentils."
"A sack?" That sounded large and heavy. And expensive.
She noticed his hesitation. "Yes, they have them. They cost $1.59 each."
He walked out of the front door and crossed Whittier Boulevard.
The store was so close, but like so many places in LA, not some place you frequented too much. If you appeared every day, the cashiers would become more familiar, and vaguely insolent.
He came from a smaller city in a different time. The people were always pleased to see you, and the oftener the better.
This was not so in Los Angeles, in 2012. Or so it seemed to him. But maybe it was just him.
He searched the familiar aisles, and at last found what he was looking for. They had several kinds of beans, but not lentils. Maybe they were lentils after all, he thought. What the hell are lentils, anyway? To be on safe side, he bought two sacks. Red beans, and black beans.
He handed them to Elsa.
"Perfect. These will last me a week. The only problem is that they have to be cooked overnight."
No complaints. No serious ones.
As he drove on the freeway to the gallery he thought about this new development. Was he now responsible for Elsa's dinner every day? Maybe. But at least it was a cheap, Latino market dinner.
Why hadn't he come up with this years ago? He winced when he thought about her five or six martinis every night. At ten bucks a drink.
He always overdid it with his women. They would have accepted a lot less from him. Right from the earliest days.
Kristina had just finished staining her newest table. She now worked on the underside, after a customer mentioned it.
"So, how are things with your mother?" he asked, entering the gallery.
"Fine. We went for a walk. I like talking to her. She has plenty of unusual things to say, and can give good advice on everything except men."
"That sounds about right. All of her ideas at least come directly from her own experience. I have to give a summary of my time with Rebecca to Elsa. She forces herself to hear every detail."
"Why is jealousy so common?"
"Elsa isn't really jealous, and she'd rather have her fingernails pulled out rather than admit to having the slightest feeling like that. At least over me. But she had some brutal encounters with other women who got too close to her boyfriend in New York. She was younger then."
"So she's cured now? Without working on the problem?"
"No, of course not. Rivalry is innate in the human race. I've concluded that it's incurable. You can manage it. That's all. It probably has something to do with the survival of the species."
"Even if you mention another man's name around someone who's interested in you, the conversation changes. You can see him freeze up."
"That's a big deal when an unknown individual's name first appears. It generally takes a long time before that happens. And it reveals a whole world that's been hidden from a lover's eyes. It's a little risky."
"That what Chloe and I always thought. So we just change the man's name to a woman. It's a major difference between Jennifer told me this, and David told me this."
"That's not a bad tactic."
"Oh, I can't even say my father told me this."
"Really? Now that is wrong."
"But it's true. Actually not Rainer. He's not the jealous type. At least so far."
"Good for him. He probably has a well-defended ego. But then again, you've never given him any reason to be jealous."
"I don't know how much longer that can last."
"You know, some people are expert at concealing their tracks. It can lead to social harmony, even if it's based on deception."
"I gave a dinner last night for Andrew and his family," Kristina said. "They're so nice. The father wanted to tell about meeting the mother. Andrew rolled his eyes and said he's heard this a thousand times. They've been together 38 years and still in love."
"As long as the mother didn't roll her eyes. I hope she liked hearing it again."
"She seemed to. What woman would object to hearing that she's still loved after all this time?"
"I had a long talk on the phone last night with Elsa. She called around 10:30. I guess she was bored. I had to finally hang up after midnight. I told her that we will never, ever, live together. It just isn't possible. But even more frankly I said I can't imagine anyone living with her, like man and wife. It's terrible, but it's true."
"That sounds harsh. How did she take it?"
"She said I wasn't the first person to tell her that. But she wanted to know why people believed it."
"Because she's so self-centered?"
"I didn't say that. It's actually more than one thing. Kind of difficult to pinpoint. But I did clarify a few key concepts during our intense conversation. It has to do with time and distance. True love means people being as close as possible for as long as possible. Without going nuts and committing mayhem."
Kristina's eyes glazed over as if she was thinking about her own life, and the recent separation from her huband.
"Rainer and I were very close for the first ten years . . . "
"Right. But it came to an end. Not like Andrew's parents. Love is a mixture of closeness and time. Families can last a forever, because the members don't get that close. Sisters and brothers don't have sex and sleep in the same bed. They keep their distance so there's no need for a rupture."
"Sex changes things in a major way."
"When it's combined with time. You can get exceptionally close to a person physically but only briefly. Like a one-night stand. And you can be around the worst person on earth as long as it only lasts a few minutes, and there is enough distance between you. I suppose I could spend an hour with a deranged serial killer as long as he was behind bars."
Even the most depraved humans, the heartless killing machines who poison this world, are nevertheless still human beings and part of a single vast family. To be able to love such monsters requires a special aptitude blended with a very unusual definition of love.
"Do I love Elsa? Well, in my own style, yes. Which is to maintain the right balance of time and distance. Just enough of both. But within definite limits," he said.
Time and distance. He was tempted to say time and space, but that made it sound so scientific. Yet, it was more philosophically correct.
His love was very conditional. Maybe he'd never known anything else. He accepted the existence of true, even absolute, love. But he'd never had first-hand experience of such a phenomenon.
A young woman came into the gallery. She radiated energy.
"Do you make these?"
"What inspires you?"
It was the first time he answered that way.
A single word.
"I understand. I'm in love with a woman," she said. "I don't know how you feel about that."
"I feel fine about it," he shrugged.
"And her birthday's coming up. I want to buy a painting for her. She adores Frida Kahlo."
"I've almost made a painting of her, but so far I haven't. Maybe it's time, though."
"And also John Lennon."
"Kind of an unusual pair. Well, my painting partner is obsessed with Lennon. She'd have to make that one."
"Oh, perfect! I'm Sophy, by the way. I'm in a rush, but I'll be back. And maybe I can come to your studio."
She dashed out, and second later he heard a scream. He ran to the door and looked down the sidewalk.
Sophia had jumped up on a woman, with her legs wrapped around her. Kissing and laughing.
"Very," Elsa answered. "We're out of polyurethane, so I guess we can go."
"Out? I never even used any."
"I bought this one. I had to finish my pieces."
What's the use? He didn't bother chiding her, and closed the overhead back door.
They drove deeper into East LA. He saw a restaurant on one of this trips looking for lumber. They pulled up and parked.
The meal was very good, and they were more pleased than usual. The conversation turned to friends, family, and, as a departure, celebrities that they couldn't stand.
Chloe had mentioned a guy who he disliked. He then told Elsa about how he jumped all over this talentless fraud. Chloe had actually enjoyed hearing his criticisms, but he didn't succeed in disabusing her of this fascination.
It isn't easy to talk someone out of their crazy desires. You can bash the object of their dreams to your heart's content, but their feeling remains intact.
They then turned to one of Elsa's unfavorite actresses.
"I can't hear her name mentioned without drawing a deep breath. She's everything I hate about life."
Elsa then went on a ferocious rant about this woman. It made him lean back in his chair, and survey her more closely than usual.
"She thinks she's funny --- she's not. She thinks she can sing -- she can't. She's deluded into posing like she's tough -- she's an obvious weakling. And even worse, she pretends that she's one of the guys. What guy would ever accept her as one of them? To be one of the guys a woman would have to be butt-ugly. She isn't, even though she puts on these big glasses. And even though she's only mediocre looking. I get nuts when her name comes up."
"Funny, but I kind of like her. Well, I do. I guess it demonstrates the difference between men and women, and their incomprehensible tastes."
"But how can men possibly not see this phony cow like I do?"
"How can Chloe not see this sorry-assed clown like I do? But, you know, one thing I've noticed. We only become infuriated about certain types that tend to at least partially resemble ourselves."
"Our degraded selves. I can't stand a crappy version of me that the world applauds."
"Well, it's hard to accept a pissed poor copy of the original. Either in art, or life."
Kristina came to the studio. She had something on her mind.
"We had a little dinner party the other night. I told you. And right in the middle of it I heard this knock on my door. It was Greg, who lives downstairs. He said we were being loud, and could we keep it down? Incredible. He's a freak. He must have complained fifty times about the sound our shoes make on the wooden floor. We have to tiptoe around. Plus if Raphael cries Greg comes running up the stairs."
"Your neighbor is a mental case."
"Oh, for sure. Then the landlord called about Greg's whining. He said we'll have to buy area carpets to muffle the sounds. The lease is coming up in two days. Would you mind if we moved into the studio?"
"Of course not. I'd love to have the both of you. I guess we'll have to do some remodeling, but we have a great handyman in Jose. The building is just waiting for some new energy."
"Plus if I give notice I'll get $4000 back from the landlord. We can put it into the studio."
"It's the difference between flushing it down the toilet and making an investment."
"On Sunday I had three people mad at me. The other tenant also started to squawk. Three people in one day. It's got to be telling me something. I remember when you said you had a day like that in your life."
"How can I forget it? Actually, it was on my birthday. Three different women were crying because of me. Because of my out-of-control behavior. I remember trying to justify myself by saying it was their choice to feel that way. I didn't do anything to any of them, and that was exactly the problem. I was merely running around living my selfish life and ignoring them. But the consequences were very unpleasant. From that moment I made a serious change in my conduct. It was the end of my cool and breezy days, and beginning of my family style. You were born about a year later."
They walked into the front room and Kristina took it all in.
"It's a great place, and I'm ready to make it beautiful. I finished my apartment and everyone loves the pictures we posted, but they really love loft spaces more than anything. This'll be perfect."
"Raphael can run around here all day and night yelling his lungs out. No one cares. No one will even hear him. When a potential buyer looked at this room a year ago he was thinking about turning it into four condos. It's nearly big enough for that."
"Even Elsa could move in."
"I wouldn't mind that with you here. Otherwise it would be too raw for us."
He wondered how Elsa will take the news. No matter how perceptive about women he believed himself to be, he could never anticipate their responses. He'd say black, she'd say white. He'd say white, she'd say black. Did she make a game of it? Or was it simply their profoundly different natures?
"Rainer should be happy with the decision," he said to his daughter as they drove across town.
"Even though I dislike the term I have to accept the fact that I am now a single mother. Rainer talks about how close he is to his son, but in his mind he'd be happy to see him about five minutes a day. Just like his father was with him."
"So many ways of being a parent. I guess I find children less hideous than adults. Kids make me smile, but most adults seem like they never were children. They've managed to destroy all traces of beautiful innocence."
"Yesterday Chloe and I met with the other parents at Raphael's daycare, and they all wanted to talk about such uninteresting stuff, like what's being done there, and we just realize how different we are from so many people. Chloe and I only wanted to talk about love."
"Face it, we're not like them, and they're not like us. It's always been that way, and will always be that way."
"Everyone's so uptight. So straight. It'll be good to get away from them."
If he was finally willing to open his studio to one, or two, why not make it three? Everyone could fit in without stepping on each other.
He called Elsa and asked if she'd like to go to the Kosher Fish Grill for dinner. It was a longtime favorite, inexpensive, good food, and no alcohol.
He wanted to have his wits about him. He needed to break the news of some big changes in the studio. Up to this point the two of them were the only ones to use it daily.
"I had a talk with Kristina," he said, as he dug into his fish and chips.
"She and Raphael are moving into the studio."
"I thought she loved her apartment?"
"She does, but it comes with stuff she doesn't find so appealing. Like the cost. And the imbecile who lives downstairs. So she asked if they could live in the studio. And . . . she even wondered if you'd like to move in, too."
"But you just told me I can't!"
"I don't think it'd work if there was just the two of us."
"Maybe you're right," she said, after a pause.
"We need someone to oil the friction that may arise between us. They could lessen the tension that may build up. Having my grandchild there would also help. It's just the way I feel."
"The rent on my place is due in a few days and I don't have it. At least I wouldn't have to sweat it every month. I can't even sleep at night. It's all I think about."
"And we could start fixing the place up and making it very livable."
"I sold five, no, six, paintings last month, but I have nothing left in my bank account. Everything went for rent, car payments, and my phone. If you didn't ask me to dinner tonight I wasn't going to eat."
"Kristina told her landlord she was leaving, but he wanted to talk about it tomorrow. He wasn't happy."
"Well, too bad. My landlord is happy as hell when someone leaves because he can then raise the rent for the next person."
"Maybe your building is underpriced, but Kristina and Rainer were good tenants. They wrote out three years of post-dated checks, and the apartment was already on the high side. Landlords hate to see good tenants leave, and the bad ones stay."
He said his piece, and made his offer. Elsa could possibly sleep easier tonight.
It felt like the world was suddenly spreading its wings, just by allowing himself to include other people in his life.
Once again he found himself in a rut. It was a chronic problem. It came along every now and then without fail, in spite of all his best efforts to keep himself fluid, mobile, and free.
Ruts were the worst that could happen to a creative spirit. And they had a way of concealing their reality.
When you became aware of a rut, and called it by its true name, you were already beginning to pull out of it.
This latest rut had something to do with stubbornly distancing himself from his family and friends and burying himself inside his warehouse. Alone.
It was becoming a dead end.
"I don't understand," Elsa said. "You said you liked living by yourself. With no one disturbing you. No one telling you what to do."
"I did. But even that grows old."
"But if Kristina was fine where she was you wouldn't have changed."
"But you like to initiate your own choices."
"This is my own choice. I choose to open myself to life's opportunities. To what comes my way. I can either accept it or reject it. Sometimes even the best don't always know what's best for them. It has to appear as a possibility. I now feel as if I have more possibilities."
"I don't. I'm not sure how I feel about your hippie warren."
For several years, almost since they met, he was unsure of how to proceed with this young painter. He strove to put Elsa's destiny on par with his own. He wanted to do right by her. It was the obligation of an old artist to a green, talented artist.
Also, of a man towards a woman. He saw himself as a transmitter of one of life's highest values. A carrier of living truth to be passed along to a receptive youth.
He was satisfied with the solution to a knotty problem that had previously exhausted his capacity.
He thanked the gods.
Whatever happens down the road he'll never have to berate himself over Elsa.
"I feel better today than yesterday. I think this is going to be a good thing," Kristina said, as they sat and talked at the gallery.
"I agree, even though I kind of saw my erotic vision fade. I guess it's time to take on the role once again as a father of a family. A grandfather, at this point."
"But I felt the same. I'm just going to be a single mother living with my child and my dad in Boyle Heights in his studio. No more big dreams about love and passion."
"Well, it still seems like the right thing to do. Circling the wagons. Getting back to the permanent hard core. Maybe it's merely a phase. Something to rekindle our strength, and sharpen our tools for the next period. Each decade is very different from the preceding one. This one will be unlike the last ten years."
"I'm ready. I'm looking forward to designing the loft."
"You know, people don't really have a very good sense of life's drama. Most of world thinks drama has to do with leaping off tall buildings, pulling out guns, splattering blood everywhere, and the like. They aren't sensitive enough to spot the drama of everyday existence."
A creative person can make something out of thin air.
Something that'll still be around when the skyscrapers aren't even a cloud of dust.
"When I look at pictures of cool lofts the ones I like best are old buildings that are mostly left old, even a little damaged and crumbling. I have no problem with that. I now stare at my apartment and seems a bit stodgy and confining," Kristina said.
She was eager to tackle the nearly empty front room in the studio, and turn it into a bohemian paradise.
He was pleased with his daughter's enthusiasm combined with good design sense. She knew how to do things without wasting the little money they had.
"Yeah, when I examine my living arrangement I have no problems, but when I look at the other half I'm dejected. It's really only because I never bothered to work on it. And it's good to remember that we only have to please ourselves."
"We have to stick to our own style."
"I do that little by little each year. So you let your tenants know that it was over?"
"I texted Todd and told him to take his time, because we're all moving out. He wrote back that he was shocked, and apologized for his over-reaction. I felt good about patching it up with him. Even though it was his fault. But maybe a little of the blame might fall on me. I shouldn't imagine everyone is as relaxed about things as I am."
"No. People are not. We have plenty of examples."
"But I'm glad it's okay with Todd now, because if I ever saw him walking down the street I'd be able to approach him with a smile."
"We've lived in LA for over twenty years and I haven't had a falling out with anyone. I have no hard feelings whatsoever. Even going back to Florida and beyond. I guess some people could be pissed at me, but I'm not pissed at them."
"I guess a few men might be angry with me, but I don't think I've done anything to hurt them."
"I recall when I was in college that I was mad at this one friend of mine. He once borrowed $20 from me, and said he didn't, claiming I was too drunk to realize it. But I think he was lying. This went on for two years. When I saw him I always turned away and didn't speak. Eventually I was graduating, and I started to rethink the situation. What if he was correct? What if I was too drunk to understand what really happened? It was always a remote possibility. It certainly would have been a first. So when I saw him a few days before I left town for good I walked up and shook his hand and wished him well. I'm glad I did. And that was the end of it."
It doesn't require an arm and a leg to smooth things over with nearly everyone. If you don't take trouble to mend a relationship it may haunt you in the future.
It's like something alien that gets under your skin and eventually scars over, leaving a little mark. It won't be painful, but it'll be there and you'll notice it. And you'll be compelled to wonder about it.
His old friend in those days came from a wealthy family back East. He was tall and very sociable, even to a point where he could have been envied. He had a bluff, mocking style. But one of his pals revealed that there were serious issues in his home. This made the artist sad, and made him alter his views. No one's as lucky as he seems.
"There's a gentleman here who would like to know how much it costs to ship a medium-sized painting to Berlin," Kristina said on the phone.
"Oh, about $300."
"Okay. I'll call you later."
He finished his pot of coffee and painted on a small piece. It was going to be a canvas that someone ordered. The guy wanted it heavily textured. It takes many layers to achieve that look. And time. He had to wait until it dried before adding more plaster.
The phone rang. It was his daughter again.
"I told him it might be best just to make a package and bring it on the plane with him."
"I think he was more interested in taking me to dinner than he was in buying a painting. He was intelligent and interesting. Too bad I couldn't see myself kissing him."
"No love connection? Well, it's not that surprising."
"It must be a matter of feeling. I just didn't feel anything. Is that the way it is?"
"I don't know if you can be conscious and not feel something. But it obviously wasn't a strong feeling, whatever it was."
"I didn't feel like swooning. With some men who I kiss everything just vanishes except their sweet face and soft lips. With others it's like everything intrudes. Noises in the street, the furniture creaking, an airplane flying by . . . it becomes all background. There's no concentrated center where my mind seems to melt."
"Well, you can't expect that very often. The keenest pleasures are as rare as they are memorable."
"But I would like to have dinner at the fancy French restaurant down the street."
"It's very special. Like a fairyland." He recently took a woman for a drink at the bar in that place. But he couldn't afford a dinner. Not these days. It'll be awhile.
Later in the day as he was emptying the garbage he noticed two sheets of wood leaning up against their dumpster. He recognized them as panels from a restaurant a few doors down. It was changing hands and the new owner ripped them off the walls, as he remodelled. They were covered with a digital print on vinyl. Still in perfect shape, although on the tacky side. Nevertheless, they were well-built. He put them in the back of his pickup. He'll re-purpose them.
A few hours later the owner of the restaurant walked in.
"I saw the pieces. Did my workers put them there?"
"No. They were by our dumpster. Do you want them back?"
"No, no. Help yourself. I'm Luigi, by the way. I'm taking over the space."
He'd been to the gallery a few days before. An energetic, upbeat guy.
"We're glad you're moving in," Kristina said. "What kind of food will you be serving?"
"Italian. I have another place up on Sunset. And I'm going to opening one downtown, San Diego, and Newport Beach. I told my designer about your paintings. She's coming down from San Francisco next week. I'd like to have all Italians on the wall. You know, Sinatra. Sophia Loren . . ."
"I make quite a few images of Italians. Frank. Two of him. Three of Sophia. Marcello Mastroianni. And some from art history. Leonardo. Botticelli. I admire Italian style."
"What about the tables? Do you make them?"
"We do," Kristina said. "We design them, and finish them."
He then asked if she could re-finish the old tables from the former restaurant.
Sure, why not?
"Elsa's sister is in town. This'll take her mind off her problems for awhile. Not solve them, however."
"The sister she gets along with, right?" Kristina said.
"Yeah. I haven't talked to her for a few days. I hope she's enjoying herself."
Not more than ten minutes later the phone rang at the gallery, and it showed a familiar number. Kristina handed it to her father.
"Hey. How've you been?"
"Really good. Ginny's has been so nice to me. She paid my rent for this month," Elsa said.
"I know. It is. Not only that she took me out shopping and bought me a ton of stuff. And also filled up my gas tank. Are we going out for pizza tomorrow? I have so many stories to tell you."
"Of course. Maybe we can go before the Super Bowl starts."
"The Super Bowl. Oh, no. When does that stupid thing begin?"
"I don't know. Probably around 3:30."
"You mean we'd have to eat dinner at 1:00?"
"Or 2:00. I don't care about it, frankly. I'd rather hear some new stories. Come by any time."
"We went out to that restaurant we like. Katana. Remember? Up on Sunset. When my sister got up and went to the bathroom Charles wanted to hand me some cash. I told him, no, don't start that. They're so well-off. He laid $400 on the table and told me to take it, or else the waitress was going to have it for a very large tip. I eventually pocketed it. He said, look, Elsa, we have eleven paintings of yours in our house and we've never paid you for one. So, please . . . "
"Those two know how to treat you right."
"They've always been so generous. It's too bad no one else in my family is, but they make up for it. And I have to tell you about the falling out they had with my brother. Charles has never gotten along with him, but he's finally had it up to here. He said to me what has that guy ever done for us? Or for anyone? My brother is such a knucklehead. A leech, really. They apparently haven't talked to him in two months, and they live nearby."
"From what I hear he certainly doesn't have winning ways. He's always been such a prick toward you. Man, that would not have gone over in our family. My dad said if my sons ever mistreat a woman, they didn't learn it from me. And that was the truth."
"They do know how to treat me right. Both Charles and Ginny said the same thing to me. They heard that I was going through tough times, and they'd try to help. It's not as if they have nothing else to think about, with three young kids, and a huge house to deal with. But Charles apparently hasn't been hurt by the recession. Not like us. Can you afford some pizza tomorrow?
"Yes. I sold a few things this week. You know me by now. The gods always give me what I need."
"I guess they've done the same for me over the last few days."
"I'm exhausted," Elsa said on the phone. "My sister and her husband just left. I drove them to LAX. I don't know if I'm going to make it over to the studio today."
"That's fine with me. I have all I need here. Out of town company can be tiring. They always want to do things."
"Ginny and Charles weren't too bad. My sister was wiped out from the other night. She was wearing her sunglasses today and not talking. You know how we get when we're out, kinda boisterous? She just goes into herself and becomes silent."
"It sounds like you had a good time."
"We did. But I'm wiped out."
"From Friday night, right? Up on Sunset."
"Yes. We had dinner at Morel's in the Grove, then carried on. At Chateau Marmont. We got pretty plowed."
"We took a taxi. I was okay at Morel's. I had three martinis. Then at Marmont Charles bought us a round of something called chocolate tequila. Have you ever heard of it?"
"No. But you don't do well on tequila. Remember Tijuana?"
"Yes. Or at least some part of it. No. I don't. Especially shots. We were all downing shots."
"Whenever I hear the word shots I get a bad feeling. It's like mainlining heroin."
"It wrecked us all. They rode back to their hotel and put me in a taxi to my apartment. My voice is so hoarse. Does it sound that way?"
"A little. Get some rest, and call me later."
"How can I do that? I never nap. I'll have to wait until the sun goes down. Good bye."
He reflected on how good he felt at that moment. No pounding hangover. No misgivings about something either said or done over the weekend. Especially no worries about getting someone pregnant. That was the worse, or close to it.
Life wasn't great, but not bad either.
Kristina and her dad drove through East LA, dropping off lumber at one furniture maker's shop, and picking up weathered pieces at a sprawling yard he found a few weeks ago.
They selected about six boards, and two posts. The worker didn't speak English, but was helpful, and cut the boards in half so they fit into the pickup.
Then the woman at the counter came outside and examined their haul, jotting down some figures on a pad of white paper, and returning to the cash register.
"The wood is in bad shape. I'll give you a good price. $50."
"We'll take it."
"This means we can put together the table for under $300," Kristina said happily.
They then drove to another wood worker's shop. Only a block away from the studio. He was a retired man, originally from San Salvador, but had been in the country for nearly fifty years. It was easier to make themselves understood.
The craftsman laid the pieces out on a table, and said that he'd have to clean them up. Kristina told him not to bother, that they wanted something "very rough."
"Rough. Oh." He took off his cap and brushed back his gray hair. Everyone was silent for a moment. "Rustic," he finally said.
"Exactly. The customer wants a rustic look."
She then handed him some cash for a down payment, and they left.
"I think he understands what we want."
"We'll see. But it'll be great if he does. I can just walk over to his place from the studio."
"I think we're in the right part of town. Stuff is manufactured here and sold in Beverly Hills."
They drove to the gallery and he started working on some more bronzes.
Two women appeared. One of them had previously bought a text piece and put it in her place in New York. The New Yorkers admired his art. And probably the prices.
"I want to buy one for my friend's birthday."
The friend walked in a few seconds later. "My hair is all damp," she said, shaking it out. It was blond and looked fine enough to him.
"I like this one," the blond said, pointing at the skull painting. "It reminds me of my life. I'm going through a bad divorce."
"A bad divorce," he said. "I guess most of them are. My daughter is getting a divorce, too."
"Oh, that's a shame. We met her last time. She's very pretty."
The blond finally chose a Bardot piece. He had dropped the price, and it closed the deal. He was amazed that people spent so much money on their friends. It was mostly women who bought art for other women. Men seldom bought paintings for their male friends.
He gradually remembered things about the two women. Some customers stood out sharply, while others remained shadowy, or impossible to place.
"How is your daughter?" he asked the blond.
"She just graduated and is going to live in Europe with her boyfriend. He's French and going to law school."
"How perfect. But both of you are so youthful. I can't get over it. A twenty-one year old daughter. You must have formaldehyde in your veins."
"We'll take the painting with us."
"Do you have far to go?"
"No, I live two blocks from here. I just moved in."
"I forgot to tell you. Wendy said you have nice blue eyes," Kristina said.
His daughter always was looking for ways to cheer him up, and it was easiest to pass along something flattering that came from an attractive woman. Like one of her friends, who were no doubt showing their appreciation of her world.
It was a service they provided each other. He enjoyed communicating similar remarks to her, often from men.
They both had a taste for uncovering new sources of potential love interests. Secondhand compliments always find their mark.
"Eyes? What do women see in a man's eyes?"
"It must tell them something."
"It means go for it. If a woman says she likes the color of your eyes it's giving you a green light."
"But why eyes? It takes me almost a year or more to know what color eyes a lover has. It just doesn't matter that much."
"Not to a man. What do they notice first? A woman's figure?"
"I'm not sure, but probably. And if we're talking about the face I think men focus on a woman's mouth. It sounds strange, but I think I do that."
"Her mouth? That's interesting."
"What could women possibly see in a man's eyes that gets her blood stirred up?"
"Chloe says that the eyes must be squinty. If a man has big, round eyes it's a turn off. Squinty eyes on a man means he's a good hunter."
"Really? Well, I guess that could be true. He's able to bring home a rabbit for the pot. Maybe squinty eyes also indicate a wariness, and ability to spot danger from a distance. So he's a good protector. And I guess blue eyes say something significant, especially if you also have blue eyes. Wendy has blue eyes."
"She does. You say eye color isn't as important to a man, but I haven't found that to be true. Most blue eyed guys are the ones who really like me immediately. It means we're from the same clan."
"As much as I dismiss eye color in favor of other attributes your mother has blue eyes and it must have mattered since we had you, and I didn't reproduce with anyone else."
"See what I mean?"
"Elsa has green eyes, but she always seems to be on the prowl for a blue-eyed man she can spawn with. But she never admits it. Rainer has blue eyes, and Raphael, too. I guess the family is pulled along half-consciously into certain channels."
He sold another text piece today. To an Asian woman who had moved from New York and worked down the street at Cedars-Sinai. She'd walked by the gallery many times and finally ventured in.
Almost all of his collectors were women. This wasn't his intention. It apparently is a result of his natural expressiveness. One of them put it this way: "these are the kind of paintings we like."
Okay, so he was biased in favor of one half the human race.
It's a well that would never run dry.
Was art history manipulated by men for men?
"Hey, the table is finished."
"Good, Paco. That was fast. I'll pick it up."
"When are you coming? At eleven?"
"I have some work to do around here."
"Because I close for lunch."
"How about after 1:00."
"Okay. Is 1:30 all right?"
"One thirty is fine. See you then."
Paco was the retired Salvadoran woodworker. He could be a find for the gallery. He lived so close to the studio. In walking distance. Just a block away on Whittier. And he was quick.
But there was a problem. He didn't fully understand what they ordered. What the customer wanted. Although he came up with the word rustic.
Yesterday when he dropped off three two by fours for the apron, cheap, chewed up ones, he brought them into Paco's shop.
"I already made the top," he said. "It was uneven, so I sanded it off."
Not good. The customer liked the unevenness, the roughness, the home-made primitive look.
"Oh . . .well . . . no. Let's turn it over." They lifted the table top up and flipped it. "There. That's just perfect. Use that side for the top. No more sanding. On this one."
Paco looked puzzled.
"What's the point?"
"The customer likes it that way," the artist answered, smiling, shrugging his shoulders.
This was a common problem when it came to certain styles in the USA. A common problem for the immigrants who came to this country looking for something better. Something more modern. Something fancier.
They left the old country and its old, unvarnished ways behind. They didn't like reminders of their hard times. They wanted to join the middle class, and have the latest and best.
Reclaimed wood, lumber that had been sitting out in the open for many years, lumber that had been salvaged from torn down buildings, was good for nothing. It was trash. Maybe it could be cut up and tossed in the fireplace. But even fireplaces had no special charm.
It was hard to make himself understood, but then again, maybe Paco was used to it, never knowing what to expect.
He drove to Paco's at the appointed time, and walked inside the dusty shop.
"You like it?"
"We're going to give you a lot of work."
"I'm not busy."
"You will be. This is exactly what the customer wanted."
"Make the customer happy," he said, as they loaded the very rough dining table into the truck. "It's heavy."
"That's what they want. Something very solid."
"This is very weird."
He heard a familiar voice as he was surveying the cheese counter at Whole Foods, and turned around to see Elsa.
It was the second time in the same day that they accidentally ran into each other in a public place. Neither had planned it. It wasn't discussed beforehand. Earlier as he was walking down the roofing aisle at Home Depot he saw Elsa coming toward him. That was unusual enough. But twice?
"I don't know what to say. I'm getting the feeling that I'm trapped."
"You trapped? What about me?"
LA is a big city. With many, many places to go, and times when a person might go. A nearly infinite number of paths. How can such unlikely intersections between two people occur in a few hours?
But, on the other hand, habits form and people tumble into deep grooves and seldom deviate much, even in a vast city. Everyone makes a small village out of any situation.
"Raphael wanted a sandwich so Kristina made a tuna salad. But he wanted cheese on it. She doesn't eat cheese, but had a little blue cheese on hand, so she put it on his sandwich. He ate it, and today asked for another one. That's kind of odd. A three year old who likes gorgonzola."
"But he eats anything that's put in front of him."
"It's true. At the daycare they call him a good eater. Rainer's father owned a restaurant for many years. He must get it from him, although I like blue cheese, too."
"You like this one." She pointed to a less expensive brand.
"What did you do at the studio today?"
"I stretched three of yours, and made two for me. By the way you forgot to wash one of the squeegees and it was covered with blue that was hard as rock. It really fucks it up. Even cleaning it doesn't help. Bits still get mixed up with different colors and ruin the printing."
"I noticed it, but forgot. And speaking of that I have to say that in the future let's not mix more paint than we can use at one time. You always fill up these cans and then leave them for a week, and they dry out. So before they do I put them on my pieces. Then you criticize me for it. I don't use them because they're so beautiful. I just don't want to waste them."
"Every color under the sun, over the last ten years."
"I have a solution to that. I put a top on the cans and they stay moist."
"You've only done that in the last month."
Two painters. One studio.
How do these two porcupines keep from enraging each other?
In the beginning there were outbursts, and screaming. But all that has ended.
Why? The passage of time combined with a sour pragmatism.
Today they were like an old married couple in spite of themselves. They realized that neither was going to change, and a change, even a massive change, wouldn't bring any genuine relief. They'd still be who they fundamentally are.
Neither had any hope of attaining the other's ideal.
So a chilly peace prevailed between them.
Two guys walked into the gallery.
"Not bad stuff," the taller one said, looking around.
"Not bad. I agree."
"Do you make it?"
"I didn't mean . . . how about Sinatra? Do have any of him?"
"Yeah, several." He never was a big fan of the crooner. But after painting him a couple dozen times, he looked closer at Frank's life, and spotted a few good traits. He was a rebel when it came to civil rights. He was pals with Sammy Davis Jr. He must have been all right in more than a few ways.
The tall one was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket over a Lakers tee shirt.
"Where're you from?" the painter asked.
"Originally, New Jersey. Palisades."
"Oh. My painting partner is from there. She has a unique style."
"Jersey women," he laughed.
"She can be . . . "
"Raw," the short one said.
"Well, she doesn't take any shit from anyone."
"I'll bet she's single."
"If she stays here, she'll stay that way. Jersey women and LA men don't mix that well."
"So I hear. More than once."
"I live just down the street. I'll be back."
An hour later Elsa called.
"A guy from New Jersey came in. He said you're a little out of your element in this town."
"Because I'm intelligent, and the men from here are stupid?"
"Not quite. But anyway, not everyone from the East Coast is that smart. I just had the worst time with this one idiot who's buying a painting and wants it shipped to him."
"That's just one example. I have millions of them from LA."
"Did you pick up some canvas?"
"Yes, but it's still too thin. Mina said this was what you wanted. She took twenty minutes in the back looking for it, but it's just the same one."
"So they're out of the extra heavy. We may as well face it. Here's the lesson we can take from that: good deals do not last."
Good deals are like a perfect kiss between tenderly passionate lovers. Very rare. And not easily repeated.
They were sitting around a table in east downtown. Kristina, her son Raphael, and the patriarch of this small family.
"We used to go here all the time," he said, glancing around the room. It looked the same when Elsa and he often ate there after work. The same bad paintings on the walls, the same greetings from the chefs as they entered the restaurant, the same college students as waitresses.
They ordered. Sushi and sashimi for Kristina, and her child, chicken curry for the old man.
"It was a good day," he said. "We dropped off a table and a painting, and no problems. Earlier I picked up a bench at Paco's. That high-strung Ukrainian woman ordered a piece. And then the request for another painting from the tv host with his new home in the Hamptons. Finally, the girls who bought three bronze rings."
"And what about your email from your Number One?"
"That was my highlight. Money and love. One is enough, but two are perfect. But to have none going . . . "
"To have no money, or no love. That is very bleak," Kristina said.
"I'm embarrassed to admit that she's my number one. Especially since we agreed that there is no such thing as a number two. Only number one, and number 256."
"But you said she was. I understand. There is only number one."
"To be striving to take the place of a number one. Could anything be sadder?"
"I can't think of a more horrible role to be in."
"To be nothing whatsoever, completely unknown, is better than being not number one."
It was a beautiful night. They had a superior dinner, and as they were walking back to their car, they stopped in at a dessert store. They bought a brownie. Kristina, cutting it up into three pieces, was, however, not in the least impressed with it.
Before dropping grandpaw back at his studio they asked Raphael what was the highlight of his day.
Kristina showed up at the studio in the morning. They were going to get it ready for her and her little boy to move in at the end of the month.
The artist was uneasy. He only saw all the problems with his warehouse. He stared glumly at the puddles on the floor. The dripping rain kept him from sleeping. Like Chinese water torture. The bathroom was grim. There wasn't a stove, extra fridge, or bath. And no shower.
He was ashamed at how he let the place slowly disintegrate. He saw it as a symbol of himself. How someday they both would all collapse in a pile of rubble. The site would be eventually bulldozed and cleared away as if it never was.
He was resigned to his vast unimportance. How he would be utterly forgotten, if he wasn't already. What's the use of fighting the obliterating fist of time?
But his daughter seemed to have other plans. She saw the property as a potential jewel. Even a dream become real.
To this end their handyman, their mysterious fixer of anything and everything, Jose, showed up at the front door at the same time.
He walked through the building, saying very little. He only spoke a few words at a time, in a soft murmur. They'd known him several years, and never saw him smile. But his work was impeccable.
"I almost got into a fight with Rainer over Jose," Kristina said, later. "I said Jose is a genius. I went on and on at how good he was until Rainer got upset. I said, don't worry, you're also very smart. Even a genius, too."
According to Kristina, Jose liked the building. He had a desire to one day own something similar, across the border on the Mexican side. He'd live in the back half, with his wife and children, and sell something to tourists in the front part. It really wasn't that different from what was now taking place in Boyle Heights.
"We should make our money on the Westside, and spend it on the Eastside," the old painter said to his daughter. This was no doubt how things were done in LA, for many years, at least by certain types.
Well, what to attack first? The roof. Jose had his ideas on what needed to be done. Much different than what other contractors had proposed. Was there a ladder that could reach? Yes.
Jose chose the lightweight aluminum extension ladder instead of the heavy steel one. He took it out back and set it against the building.
"I'm not going to fall," he said to the painter, who firmly grasped the sides of the flimsy ladder.
Jose clambered up to the top like a native walking up a palm tree for a coconut. The artist looked on in admiration.
On Monday Jose will begin on repairing the roof, plugging all the leaks at the corners.
This will be the first step of a lengthy process of turning the whole situation around.
It put the artist in a very reflective mood. Perhaps it wasn't right to come down so hard on himself. He painted, sculpted, and wrote, but he wasn't any good at other things. Like improving his property.
But no one can do everything always.
He slept heavily, but fitfully. It probably had something to do with the fact that Jose was showing up at the studio at 8:00. He didn't want to be roused from his bed, startled by the knocking on his door, groggily shuffling along and opening it. That would be shameful.
He had a longstanding contempt for people who were caught sleeping, and who couldn't immediately shake off the torpor. It was another of his peculiarities.
He didn't like to be conked out when others in his world were awake. He could count the times when he fell asleep before any of the women in his life did. And he was equally scrupulous about rising before they opened their eyes. Did he mistrust them? Or was it simply his attempt to take on the ancient role of watchdog?
Jose and his brother arrived right on the dot, and unloaded the roofing material. Several rolls of tar paper, and a propane torch.
He let them do their job, their footsteps thumping on the ceiling, while he plastered and painted down below.
A few hours later Kristina appeared.
They left the studio, in search of things for the front room. A bathtub, sink, and a toilet. She described her ideas for the project with her father and the contractor. She was fully invested in the new changes.
"I was thinking about my next relationship with a woman," he said, as they drove along the side streets of downtown. "I believe I am ready for something I never had."
"I want the next woman to do for me what I could never do for her. That is, I want her to love me for my soul."
Kristina smothered a laugh. She was used to her father's eccentric ideas.
"So, you could never love a woman for her soul?"
"I don't think so. But even though I know it sounds unfair, I would like her to do just that for me."
"You don't want her to love you for your body?"
"Well, she needn't be revolted by my body, but that isn't the main thing."
"And you can only love her for her body?"
"Somehow it seems to be the case. But body and soul are not that far apart."
Is this his solution to the problem? He was slowly seeing a world which had been hidden from him.
Could women love a soul-sheathed body of a man?
And men could love a body-sheathed soul of a woman.
It seemed to make great sense.
But what exactly was a soul? It must be a faintly perceptible combination of the physical and the supernatural.
He was startled by a pounding on his back door. He overslept. Exactly what he didn't want to happen.
"Just a second!"
He fumbled with his clothes. It felt like a long time before he pulled them on and walked to the back door where Jose and his brother were waiting. Jose had a cup of coffee in his hand.
He motioned them in, and pulled up the overhead door. The sun poured in.
The men brought in more tools and laid them on the concrete floor.
The painter turned on the hot plate and began making himself some coffee, glancing at the brother who was knocking a hole in the wall for a new and convenient doorway. He was only a few steps away.
Should he offer the man a cup of fresh coffee?
He decided against it. They were just beginning work, and had their fill on the ride to the studio.
He went over to the computer and tried to feel at home, which was difficult, even though it was his home. Saws whirred, hammers banged away, sounds of wood ripping, plaster tumbling down.
After an hour Jose called to him to come and see something.
Under the floor of the bathroom the sewer pipe was cracked open. He stared at the dark gash.
"Where's the nearest hardware store?" Jose asked.
He tried to give him directions, but it was easier to drive him there. They left.
"Where did you come from?" Jose asked.
"The Midwest. Iowa, but we've bounced around. How about you?"
"I was born in South Central," he said, then pointed to the left, as they were passing by. "A cemetery."
"Right. I'll probably end up there. Buried in East LA. So you grew up in Los Angeles. How many are in your family?"
"I have four brothers. And my mother. I never knew my dad. He left us and moved to Mexico. I'm not angry about it. I just don't know him. I guess him and my mom couldn't get along."
"Well, that happens. And how many kids do you have?" His wife and her boys would sit in the truck for hours outside, while Jose worked.
"Two. But my wife wants more. She's diabetic, and we went to the doctor and asked if that was the problem why we can't have more. She's had diabetes since she was eight. She has to inject herself with insulin."
They parked at the building supply store on Olympic. Jose walked up and down the aisles searching for whatever it was he needed. He spoke to the clerk in Spanish. They found everything, paid, and left.
After a few more hours it was time to head across town to the galley. He gave Jose a key he'd kept in a jar in the planter outside.
It was Valentine's Day and he figured maybe a few of his more sentimental text pieces might sell.
He was right. Three of them came off the walls. Two went to a young couple obviously in love. He was from India and she was a pretty little thing. The other went to a woman who came in at closing time, in a bit of a hurry. It was a present for her lover.
She wanted to make a few changes, but that would have put a damper on the evening since he'd have to take it back to the studio. She took it in the present state.
"Any problems, just bring it back, and I'll fix it."
The renovation was coming along. Faster and cheaper than he expected. It disturbed his routine, but it was worth it. Jose was a skilled worker who also thought from the point of view of whoever he worked for. He kept mentioning less costly ways of doing things. It reminded the painter of himself.
The brother showed up two hours late, smiling. And asked if he could smoke while he worked. He was tall and thin. Jose was short and stocky. The artist could hear them talking. It sounded just like a man and a woman arguing. But it turned out that the brother was very conscientious and adept at plastering.
It was drizzling off and on, and suddenly there was a real downpour. After it ended Jose walked to the back where the painter was varnishing a small canvas.
"Did it leak back here?" he asked.
"No," the painter answered. "Perfectly dry. What a relief."
"It starts small, but it gets bigger if there's a hole."
Later on after confering with Jose about the next step he left for the gallery.
He was glad to report to Kristina that everything was going smoothly. That she and her son would enjoy their new home, even if it was still undergoing a much needed transformation.
A guy walked in, and said he was looking to buy a table that he saw online. But then he saw the large Indian painting hanging on the wall.
"Oh, wow. Who is that?"
"Do you know what tribe?"
"Blackfeet, I think. Most people don't bother to ask that question."
"I'm native American."
"Which group?" Was group the right term?
"Apache and Paiute. On my mother's side."
"I've never met an Apache. But recently I read Geronimo's autobiography."
"He wrote one? I should read it. My grandfather says we're direct descendents of Geronimo."
The young man had a distinctive look that could very well be Indian. He was tall, with jet black hair, and spoke quietly.
They talked for a long time focusing on the different combinations of widely dissimilar cultures. The painter was Irish and German. Kristina was Jewish and Irish. Her son was a blend of these nationalities as well as Jamaican and Austrian.
The Indian was Apache and New Zealander.
All of this increased melting together of out-groups made the painter wish he could live to be five hundred. Just to see the results.
So what did the fierce old warrior's heir do for a living?
"I'm a tennis pro in Beverly Hills."
"So, how did it go with that guy?" he asked his daughter, who was meeting with the young man from yesterday.
"Fine. He bought the Happy Meal."
"A table, bench, and a painting. I gave him a really good price."
"Thunder Cloud. Remember. That's what I wanted to name Raphael."
The artist glanced at the empty spot on the wall. He already took it with him. A very smart purchase.
"He seemed like a nice guy. I love the word Apache. It has such a poetic ring to it. What did you think of him?"
"He was very nice."
"But you weren't nervous around him."
"Not many people make us feel that way. It's what we're always on the lookout for, but when it happens it's a mixed bag."
"The blond makes you nervous, right?"
"She does. I stammer, and look down at my feet. And then give the wrong answers to everything. It's painful, but exciting."
"My number one makes me very anxious. But the other woman, the Scandinavian. Did she make you nervous?"
"No. She was nervous around me. I made her blush. But I was relatively calm."
"Then she was more attracted."
"But even if she was, it was lost on me. A year later it begins to make sense. By then it's too late."
"So, if a man acts all breezy and smiling around me, it means he isn't feeling anything deep."
"Yes. The strongest desire makes us somber. It turns us into mud."
"Why does it have to be that way? Why does love cause us to suffer? It can be the worst kind of agony."
"Real love is a fiery ordeal. It almost makes you happy to be single and carefree. To not be under its spell."
"I was thinking more about the idea of number one. Not every number one feels the same way. You say we always have a number one, but there's a big difference between, say, someone being utterly obsessed and someone mildly smitten."
"That's true. Because we all have a soul, and the nature of a soul is to actively love, but a fantasy dream lover, or a secret crush, is different than someone you see every day and are intimately entangled with. It's like any list. There's always a number one song, a number one team, or a number one book, but the quality varies from year to year. Sometimes it's a weak field."
He pulled up outside Paco's open door. He walked up to it, and yelled for the old cabinet-maker.
He tried again, realizing that Paco had an office in the back, where he watched tv and took the occasional nap.
Then he saw the padlock on the iron gate. It meant that Paco was across the street in the apartment block, having his daily lunch. The artist unloaded his pickup and shoved the planks through the space between the bars. Onto the floor of the woodworking room. They were for another table.
He took the 10 over to the gallery.
"I don't get lunch," he said to Kristina. "Especially hot lunch. It reminds me of school."
"Hot. Lunch. It's not our style."
"But it's the favorite style in Boyle Heights. Whenever I went to Rudolpho's home at any hour of the day there was his wife in the kitchen, and every burner on the stove was going strong, heating pots full of food. It smelt really good, and they always offered me something. Until they realized I tended to decline."
Rudolpho used to make his stretchers, and even worked on constructing the studio. But he tired of him. No problem. East LA was a vast labor pool. There were so many people willing to do any job for a few bucks. Not for nothing, however. They were shrewd enough to refuse to be exploited, nor would the artist ever attempt something so tasteless, and cheap-assed.
"I think most men, even now, would be content with a woman who cooked for them. Someone who had a hearty meal ready for their man after a day of rough work."
"I guess they'd love me, then. And cooking is so easy. It only takes a few minutes."
"But I'm thinking of the immigrant men I've met. They don't seem to be that fastidious about a woman's looks as long as she's a good cook and mother to their children."
"That's not like the men I know."
"Right. The Westside types. And the women here are also very different. Take Elsa. She hates cooking. Her idea is to be taken out to restaurants every night, and be supplied with jewelry."
There must be another way. Some third or fourth or tenth way. He was now at that point where women were becoming almost unnecessary, except for buying his art, and providing agreeable conversations.
He learned how to care for himself. Not perfectly. Not graciously. But passably. And it was easier and more pleasant than having to care for another adult who didn't particularly care for him.
Kristina showed him an email from one of her customers. The young woman was buying a table. She wrote out these absurdly detailed instructions on how it was to be made.
He sympathized with his daughter since he went through similar things with his paintings decades ago. Not that these aggravations cease altogether. But they're far fewer after he'd spent many years figuring it out. How to avoid the neurotics with their crazy demands.
"We're too nice. It's our nature. We can't be snotty even if we tried."
"I've written it all down for people. I make them read it before I take an order. But I still hear these ridiculous complaints," she said.
"There must be more pettiness in the world than we imagined. We've managed to steer clear of those types in our social life. Our families aren't that way. Most of them, at least. So it puzzles us when we're faced with it."
Once he suddenly had this clear thought: I don't know how to live. It was eye-opening. He then talked to his friend over coffee.
"I realized something very disturbing. I don't know how to live. Do you ever think that about yourself?"
"All the time," his friend answered.
So there it was. People don't know how to live. And some of them are aware of it. Not that it helps that much. While others may still be in the dark. That is, they don't know how to live, and they don't even suspect it, and are not even conscious how far they are from life.
The same friend told him of an incident that seemed to shed light on the problem.
"I have a cat, and to make things easier for her, I cut a hole in my bedroom window to let her come in and out of the house. Even though it's on the second floor. I don't know how she gets up there. Well, the other night she dragged a rat into the room, and the rat was still alive and the two of them began chasing around the place squealing and knocking into stuff. I started yelling at her, and then I gave up and shut her window and closed my door. At least she was going to be in there if I had to be."
"I think I'd have trouble falling asleep."
"I did. But anyway, I told the story to my boss. You know about him. A very conservative type. A real straight arrow. He just couldn't get over it. He looked aghast. You laughed, but he went pale. You see what I mean? That's a guy who doesn't know life. He lives in a tidy vacuum where something like that has never happened, and never will. He can't even imagine such a world."
"Yeah. I get it. Life is so big and messy. All those things, and many others, will happen to a person who is in the thick of it. A real life is anarchic and unpredictable and filled with strangeness."
"What're you having?" he asked Elsa. It was their Sunday meal, at a new restaurant in Boyle Heights.
"The chicken fajitas. My parents are coming to town next week. I think my father wants a face-to-face talk with me. He's been saying it for several months. But it won't be anything different."
"It'll be about money and marriage."
"Exactly. Everyone is down on me because I put my painting before marriage. But they can't understand that."
"They come from a different generation."
"I know. My sisters, and even my brother is now married, but I wanted to learn how to support myself before I got married. Even though it's been really hard I've made and sold about two thousand paintings since I moved to LA. I'm doing all right. Why can't anyone see that? I can barely hear with that music going."
In the next booth over a single guitarist was serenading a man and woman. Usually it goes on for a song or two at the most, but this continued for twenty minutes. The artist and Elsa had to lean forward and raise their voices.
"Well, you have a roof over your head. And drive a new red pickup. And are eating at a nice restaurant. You muddle along."
"I do. I get by somehow. Maybe I'll be married when I'm forty. Or fifty. By then I'll have achieved my independence. I'll be self-supporting at something I completely love. Why is that so terrible?"
"It's not. So make your case."
"I will when my father finally has a sitdown with me. But I just now figured it out."
"It sounds rational enough."
"It does. I am rational. I always felt like I was not very smart. My family made me feel that way. My sisters went to Barnard, Harvard, Oxford . . . but I went to art school. I never tested well, but I'm not as dumb as they all want to believe."
"The only dumb thing about you is how seriously you take their opinions."
"But I don't!"
"But you do. You even had a nightmare about it recently."
"I can't take much more of that singing. Are you about ready?"
They paid and left.
"The food was great, but the music is still ringing in my ears. What was that all about?"
"I don't know but it was loud and interminable. He's still at it."
"If I ever don't want to have a conversation when I'm eating, I'm going to hire him."
"Maybe when you have that face-to-face with your father you should invite the musician along."
"We should have gotten his card."
"Hey, big guy, need any help?"
It was the homeless fellow, who showed up with slowly increasing frequency at the front door of the gallery. For a while he wasn't drinking, but the artist noticed that he had begun again, adding to the man's plight.
"Nothing today, brother," he answered, digging into his pocket.
"Why not give me a job?" He took the money in his hand.
"Because it costs too much money I don't have."
"Cost money? No, man. We're going to make some money!"
"Good luck, brother. Stay warm."
"Thanks, big guy. I'll be back."
He made a bronze ring. Lately they started giving them to customers who grumbled about this or that thing. It was cheaper than knocking off the price, or handing their money back.
Two men ambled in. A taller one stood there, looking a little puzzled.
"Was a desk in that corner?" He asked, with an Australian accent, pointing to an empty spot at the back of the room.
"A desk? Well, maybe at one time. We probably sold it."
"I'm having a deja vu. I swear a desk was there. But I've never been in here before."
"I think we did have one . . . " he said, trying to help him out.
"Like this one?" He touched the table where the computer sat.
"Yes . . . like it."
The man fidgeted, whispering to his companion, and left.
An hour past. He looked up from his welding and saw a woman standing there. He always stopped whatever he was doing and tried to welcome anyone.
"I walked by the other night," she said, smiling. "I love all these."
"Are you the artist?"
"I want to buy something." She was still smiling. A pleasant, likable sort. Good-looking, too.
She read the words from one of the text pieces. After discussing the price, she chose a large one.
"Would you like cash?"
He said yes, and she took out some crisp $100 bills and peeled them off.
"You must be doing all right. If you don't mind, what is it you do for a living?"
"I'm in production," she said, still smiling. "I'm a survivor. I left home when I was fourteen."
So what was the scene in the painting she was buying?
"It comes from La Dolce Vita. That's Marcello on the left. And the words are from somewhere else. I generally use my words, but in this case I took them from a book by Flaubert."
"I've heard of him."
"I could tell you about them, but it's kind of a long story. They came from a short novel of his called The Temptations of St. Anthony."
"Saint . . . Anthony. Anyway. He was out in the desert mortifying his flesh, trying to achieve sainthood. Fasting. Praying. And suddenly the Queen of Sheba appeared. She was incredibly beautiful, and said to the bewildered hermit I am more than a woman, I am a world. And he was severely tempted."
"I can imagine."
"But when he couldn't stand it any longer, and started to reach for her she vanished. Like an hallucination. You can tell that story after a glass of wine when you have friends over at your house and they look at the painting."
"I will. I need to have art in my life."
"You have other pieces?"
"No. This is the first one."
"Buying art is the smartest thing you can do with your money. And you bought a good painting at a good price. I sometimes shorten that saying. A woman . . . a world. A man needs a woman. A straight man, at any rate. But everyone, gay or straight, needs a partner in this life. Otherwise they have nothing. They have no world."
"It's the same for a woman."
"She needs a man to create a world?"
"She does. And it isn't an hallucination."
Jose entered the studio, ready to work. After a talk with the artist.
"Come on, I'll buy you a coffee."
"No. I make my own. I'll make you a cup."
Jose looked thwarted.
"Then I'll get some bread." He left and walked down the block to the bakery.
By the time he returned the espresso was brewing.
"Here. This is strong," he handed a cup to Jose. "It'll grow hair on your chest."
Jose laughed. He had never seen the dour contractor even smile. It was a first.
Jose took a sip, and stopped laughing. "It is strong."
"So. Your brother did a good job plastering."
"Oh, my brother." Jose's expression changed. "I don't know how you say it in English, but it goes something like this. He'd be good to bring death, because he's always late."
"To bring death. Yeah, I can see that. And he is always late."
"He's out every night. Dancing. Drinking. Always with the women. If he even sees a woman he can't stop himself. And he's very slow with his work. He does it so right, but it takes forever."
"There's a little of the artist in him. He must be the bad one in the family."
"No. That's my other brother. He has six kids, and he left his wife."
"That's not good. A big family, and no father around."
"No. It's not good."
Maybe Jose had a right to be in a lousy mood. He'd lost his home two years ago, and was now living in an apartment. He couldn't pay the whopping mortgage, and they had a short sale.
What was there to do? Just keep working. Start all over again. He was still young and energetic. He'd recover. But it knocked the wind out of him.
An hour and a half later the brother showed up, cheerful, and smiling. As usual.
They tore out the sagging floor, exposing the dirt bottom.
"If you find gold, we can split it," Jose said.
The artist picked up a shovel and started digging a small area. It was heavy clay. He'd always wanted to try his hand at a little amateur archaeology. He even had recurring dreams of unearthing little primitive sculptures. But it was hard going through the compressed mud.
Yet he found a small stone, with a chipped off edge. He carried it to the sink and scrubbed it thoroughly. It wasn't gold, but something even more mysterious. Possibly a very old tool. A kind of scraper.
Or maybe just a natural rock.
Rebecca's boy friend left a book at Kristina's apartment. She's been reading it.
"I like this writer. Seneca."
"Yeah, he's good."
"And what a life he lived. Hard to believe. His thoughts are so fresh even though he lived so long ago."
"What thought impressed you most?"
"Well, he said something like our desire increases with our hopes."
"That makes sense. You wouldn't intensely desire a particular person if you had no hope of ever attaining them. I don't desire, say, the most beautiful woman in Albania. It would be absurd."
"Nor would you have a powerful desire for someone dead."
"No. That pretty much kills our desire. But if there was someone that worked a few doors down and I could see her everyday, my hopes would begin to grow."
"And if you flirted with her and she responded . . . "
"My hopes would become sky high, in lock-step with my desire."
"The nearer you get to your goal the more intense your desire becomes."
"So Seneca is a philosopher? I can begin to see why you like reading philosophy."
"Right. Philosophy is a way to evaluate life according to the most intelligent standard. Nothing is too large or small for a philosopher to examine."
"I was reading him last night but then I realized that I had read the same page before, but I saw something new on the second reading."
"That's a common experience when you're faced with difficult material."
"I guess I can read it over and over until it sinks in."
"In his case it might be worth the trouble. When you realize that certain ideas were expressed two thousand years ago and still seem true and useful that's an important discovery. I love the early Romans. They definitely speak to our era."
He was glad his daughter had a taste for rigorous concepts, and a curiosity about other times and places.
Real thinkers can bridge the centuries, and are free from the shackles of a too narrow present.
If she could inherit a love of profound thinking it'd be better than a ton of gold.
The dust inside the studio was everywhere. It came from the crumbling plaster, the sawing of the wood for the new platform, and the continuously sooty air of the city. He stared at the grayish hue that covered his desk, the bookshelves, his leather couch, his mirror, the kitchen table. There was no point in wiping it off until the construction work was finished.
What would he look like if he stayed motionless for a week?
He thought about all his conversations with his daughter. Did they help matters? Once he taught school for a few years. Ten years after that period he was compelled to admit that everything he told his students was wrong, ridiculous, pointless.
By then it was too late.
But maybe they never listened in the first place.
A woman had walked into the gallery and studied the pieces. After a little conversation about the technique she said that he was obviously a "hopeless romantic."
The phrase was a bit of a cliche. He recalled the talk he had with Kristina about hope and desire.
"A romantic? Yes, I suppose so. But hopeless? Not at all. A romantic is always hopeful. You can't even be a romantic without being saturated with hope. Hoping for something beautiful to happen. Hoping for a beautiful person to appear, a beautiful experience, a beautiful insight . . . "
"That's what I always say!" She was caught off guard.
A few hours later he asked Kristina to once again explain the Roman philosopher's idea.
"I don't know if I understood it correctly. It may have been my own interpretation." She was apologetic.
"But that's even better. It sounded good to me. Whether it was yours, or his, or mine, what's the difference? As long as it made sense to us."
"I think it did."
"And that's everything. Other thinkers should ignite your own comprehension. That's all they're good for. Anything else is forgettable."
"I'm beginning to see that I've spent too much of my time wanting something out there. This desire isn't doing it for me."
"People say you can't always get what you want. But that's not true. You can always get what you want, but it depends on what you want. If you want something impossible, you won't get it. But if you want what's fully in your power, you can always attain it."
"Nothing can stop you from wanting to be modest, gracious, or intuitive. Cultivate your own powers."
"So, how are the paintings going?" Kristina asked.
"Fine. But I've spent a lot of time on renovating the studio."
"Does it bother you when you can't paint?"
"No, not really. Painting is something you can do every second. It's how you see things, and how you organize life. Putting pigment on canvas is only part of it."
"That's good to hear."
"For example, I was at Home Depot buying wood for the tables, and a door knob for the new bathroom, when I came across this can of pre-mixed asphalt. It wasn't expensive, and I thought I could use it for a base coat on a painting. I bought it and tried it out yesterday. It troweled on smoothly and had an interesting surface. I'll try to incorporate it into my next pieces."
He had a strong drive to repurpose materials. The world kept inventing stuff for one thing, and as an artist he tried to make it say something in another language.
Best of all, there was no end to this activity, to this tireless search.
Asphalt. It had a history. For him, and for the world. Something like it goes back to prehistory, a sticky, tar-like compound was used to fasten stone spear points to a wooden shaft. Or set jewels in a metal holder.
But primarily it brought him back to the summers when he worked on an asphalt paving crew. Every part of the process got his attention. The hot mix would be dumped into the spreader and it would leave a smooth couple of inches behind as it moved along. It was his job to compress the newly laid down strip with a roller. He had to wait until it cooled or the heavy wheels of the roller would sink too deeply into the surface and leave a mark.
Asphalt. Would it be suitable for a painting? At least it would last. It was tough, and very durable.
After all, they painted traffic lanes on streets.
He was fixated on the quest to make a painting as solid as a well-traveled road. Generally paintings were fragile, ephemeral things, not much better than a snowman or a decorated Easter egg. Precious objects you had handle with care. But most of them ended up soon destroyed.
Why devote your life to something that doesn't survive any longer than you do?
"I've tried to make progress on changing my desire," Kristina said.
"Modifying what you want. That's pretty difficult."
"I'm starting to see him as a bad choice. For one thing he likes to get drunk."
"A heavy drinker? Not someone to build a world with."
"He gets really stewed on the weekends."
"But he's no longer in college. He should know better by now. It takes longer and longer to make a man. Today they're still lost boys at forty-five."
"I can change. But I wonder if he could. I like change. Why has our family always enjoyed change?"
"That's a good question. I know why I've embraced change. Because my life hasn't been that perfect."
"So you wanted something new?"
"When everything is rosy you want it to stay that way. So change is not desirable. When everything looks like hell you desperately want it to change. I've never been satisfied with any situation for long, and figured I deserve something better. So I'm quick to leave the past behind and try something else."
Later on, Elsa called.
"I was supposed to go out with my girl friend tonight. It's her birthday. But I don't have any money to spend on a dinner at a pricey restaurant and then hit some clubs. How can I possibly justify that? I wouldn't be any fun to be around."
"You don't want to be a wet blanket. Are other people coming?"
"Yes, of course. But I called her up and was about to tell her I'd have to cancel. But then she said that she'd been arrested."
"She went out last night, and was drinking, and as they were driving home got pulled over. There were four of them, and the other girls were laughing and blowing into the breathalyzer. But not Sarah. She was driving. So they took her down to the jail and held her for the rest of the night. She's just been released, and was trying to get her car out of the impound lot."
"Problem solved. For you, at least."
His tv conked out. It had never happened. He walked up to it, and fiddled with the wires. Slapped it on its side.
It wasn't a crisis. He'd lived free of television at several points in his life. After a little while he went over to his bookshelves and chose a volume. Maybe it was a good thing. He started reading a collection of essays.
The phone rang. It was Elsa.
"I won't be able to get our weekly dinner. My parents are in town and they've about had it with my sister. She's so crazy. This morning she took them to the Farmer's Market for breakfast. It was a little early for them. But she insisted, and then she pushed them along, and said she can't keep Robert waiting. He was apparently cooking a big lasagna dinner for later on, and needed to be alone for three hours. She acts the same way she did with her ex-husband."
"But I thought you said Robert is not like the first guy."
"He's not. He's a big, rumpled load and very mild-mannered. Not in the least bit neurotic. But my sister acts as if there's no difference."
"It might be her." This was Elsa's other sister, the screenwriter. They were still at odds.
"I know. She kept hurrying my dad along, even though he would've liked to linger at the spice store. She had to abruptly leave and called me to come and take charge. I picked them up and then my father had this very important stop he had to make. He had to go see an auto mechanic and ask a question."
"But didn't they fly to LA?"
"Obviously. But this was something he had on his schedule before coming here. He told me the address. At the corner of Vine and Melrose. I said there's no car mechanic at that intersection. Just some apartments. No, go there! We finally found it, a block south, and he went inside."
"Fathers can be very mysterious."
"I know. He came out and I had to beg him to tell me what it was all about. He finally agreed and said he asked the mechanic if they still had any used Rolls-Royces."
"That is unusual. But it has a nice sound to it. I suppose I could try that myself."
"But what if they did? What was he going to do about it? Was he going to buy it and drive it back to New Jersey?"
"I like your dad. He's an idealist. Something of a dreamer."
"Oh, I could tell you plenty of stories. We had this broken down Jaguar sitting in the garage for years."
"I've owned two different used Mercedes and they gave me so much trouble. But I understand his attitude."
The weather turned cold again. He came home and unloaded the truck. It was filled with Kristina's possessions. She and her three year old son would be moving into the studio on the first of the month.
Putting her things down, and making himself dinner he meditated on the situation. He always believed that Kristina would live there someday, but not so soon. It troubled him a little that she didn't have a solid, respectable house to live in and raise her child, his only grandson.
But she was more like him than he realized. She had no interest in a boring home in the suburbs. She looked forward to the adventure of loft living. At least she said so. Even if she wasn't ecstatic about the idea she didn't let it show. She seemed genuinely happy at the prospect.
For awhile now he was beginning to question buying a large warehouse in one of the poorer, older sections of LA. Was it turning out to be just one more disappointing fantasy? But being able to share the place with his small family gave it new meaning, and helped validate his choice.
It was cold and dark inside the studio. It wouldn't do for his roommates. Kristina, like her mother, was always chilled, even in mild weather.
He loaded up his cast-iron stove with some old wood from the torn up bathrooms and floors and started a fire. It leaked too much smoke initially, but soon gave off a stready wave of heat. He was pleased with the result and walked all over the building to see if it was acceptably comfortable.
Oddly, his grandchild was the opposite of his mother. He refused to wear a jacket outside. He never complained about the temperature. He must be a furnace of energy.
Jose was nearly finished with the first phase of reconstruction. The platform was covered with plywood, the hot water was connected to the sinks, the rest of the floor was shored up and stabilized. And the roof no longer leaked.
As he stood next to the hot stove, he was aware that the building had made a concrete step forward. The first ten years were spent in making a massive amount of paintings. The next ten would gradually transform the studio into a showcase. A civilized temple of good living. Filled with art, and imaginative design.
He even talked to Jose about adding on a second floor.
"It could easily be done," he said in his serious way.
Maybe life would at least have a chance at ending well for the painter. He visualized himself sitting outside in a deck chair, up on the roof, gazing contentedly at the downtown skyline, sipping a glass of white wine, as the sunlight began to fade.
Thinking of nothing,
"What's going on?"
"Nothing much. I was just walking out the door," Elsa said. "I have to pick up my parents. They complain that their day doesn't begin until I drive over to their place and take them on their rounds. But it's a schlepp to their hotel. My sister put them there because it's right across the street from her condo, but she bailed on them the whole time, and left it up to me. It takes an hour to get there. And I can't just race over as soon as I wake. I have to walk my dog. And see about selling a painting. They don't seem to understand that. Yesterday they came over here and my dad went online and looked for apartments in Hancock Park. So now I have to chauffeur them up and down Hancock Park for the rest of the afternoon."
"First the hunt for a Rolls-Royce, now cruising through Hancock Park. They must have come into some serious dough."
"That's not it. I can tell you the whole story when we have more time. Maybe I'll stick around the studio longer and we can get dinner. What's happening with the studio? Has Kristina moved in?"
"Tomorrow. But her stuff is already there, and the improvements have been made."
"Does she have the bath hooked up?"
"Everything's ready to go. I mean there's a huge amount still to be done, but they can start living there."
"I have to get going. I'll call you later."
He picked up some paint for the front room, and drove to the gallery. Kristina met him at the door.
"How's it look?"
"Jose's brother was putting down the bamboo floor in the bathroom as I left. It's gone much smoother than I would have ever imagined. And cheaper, too."
They discussed a few other things. Rainer was taking his son to a movie tonight. They decided to stay at his apartment.
"But now I have to convince Raphael that we'll spend tomorrow at the studio. He was angry and protested that he wasn't going to sleep there tonight. I had to assure him, but it took a long time."
"I get the feeling that something old is ending and something new is beginning. I even sense that my writing is reaching a conclusion. I think I'll consider this story finished. Actually, it's not much of a story. But it follows a little arc, and has touched down and come to a halt."
"That sounds good. What will you do now?"
"I'll start another story."