Updated: Mar 8, 2019
"Just do it already,” said William Thornton, an aging man with shifty eyes and the best toupee money could buy. He sat in front of an intricately carved fireplace, with four looming white pillars, and a three tiered mantle that had miniature Roman Gods carved along the top row. The fire raged, popping every few moments and causing Mr. Thornton to shift nervously in his ornate gold and silver brocade chair. “I do have things to do you know. I’m a very busy man.”
The young man seated across the room held a large drawing pad on his lap. Still gripping the pad, he walked over to Mr. Thornton. Then, putting his hands on his shoulders, the painter pushed Mr. Thornton slightly to the left. He treated him like a piece of clay. Thornton pouted a little, and then held his position. In preparation for the painting, his face broke out into a massive cathedral high smile.
“Stop smiling.” Said the young painter.
“You’ve just got to get me smiling! I’m very jovial; everyone says so.”
Hanz Zoberman took a moment to lift his head up and stare into his subjects’ eyes. Men always blanched when he looked at them. They seemed to intuit Hanz’s ability to see in them all that they felt should be hidden. He studied every line of a person’s face. He investigated every sunburn, every scratch, every scar. Hanz’s rough demeanor unsettled people, making it difficult for most of his sitters to maintain their posture for longer than half a dozen seconds. They had the uncanny feeling that what this man would paint of them would be a gremlin, a hideous chimera or some other awful monster. Most sitters did not last.
Mr. Thornton puffed his rotund frame and said, “look here…”
“Well. What… You really should do as I say young man. This is my portrait after all.”
“It’s mine. You’re simply the subject.”
“But I’m paying you!”
“And I’m painting you.”
“You have to do as I instruct. It’s the way it works.”
“Not if you want a Hanz Zoberman painting. That is what you asked for—you’re getting it.”
“But,” he started, then stopped as a fly buzzed by his face and landed on his nose, he slowly swiped at it and continued talking, “Well, all right. Just do whatever you did for that Samuel Messing portrait. That’s what I want.”
Since that single painting Hanz’s phone had been ringing incessantly. All the richest men and women in the world desired to have a Zoberman portrait. No one in over a hundred years had mastered the art of portrait painting like Hanz Zoberman, as one popular magazine wrote. What everyone really wanted, Hanz understood, was to be like his subject, Samuel Messings, a tech industry giant and the most successful businessman of his era.
Hanz’s thick jaw was grinding as he took his eyes off of his subject and returned to his drawing pad. The wicker chair he sat on creaked and cracked like the fireplace behind his subject. The continuous tapping of his pencil was like Chinese water torture to Mr. Thornton, who was too afraid to ask him to stop. On the pad were two large lines, then angry slashes, as if someone came to deface what had not yet begun. Hanz’s disheveled blonde hair shook with ire.
“I need more, Mr. Thornton. Take me on a tour of your house,” he said, not as a man being paid for a job, but as a detective investigating a murder.
Mr. Thornton shivered. He stood up to utter something into the vacuous space between the two men, but then sat down. Hanz’s eyes were continuously in movement, darting from side to side as if tearing apart all of his surroundings for analysis. Every bit of data was important, and he missed none of it. His thin hawk-like eyebrows paused and held on its subject.
“Yes. If that will help,” quivered the businessman.
Hanz had asked Mr. Thornton’s friends, family, and neighbors to describe his character to help in preparation for the portrait. A friend of thirty years said, “He’s just a Thornton. You know. Clap you on the back, take you out for a drink. Good guy overall. I’d say.” His next door neighbor of over a decade, a man who’d seen him almost everyday simply said, “William who?” Nobody could describe what it was William did for a living. Most said that his fantastic success was proof enough that he must be good at whatever he did.
Hanz put down his drawing pad and picked up a notebook that he used while investigating a subject. In his youth, he had been enamored with the detective character, Sherlock Holmes. “It is my job to know what others do not,” as the great detective would say; Hanz rephrased this to suit his chosen endeavor: “it is my job to observe what others do not.” Scientists investigate the workings of nature, Hanz, the artist, would investigate the workings of man’s soul. He would seek answers, make inferences and deductions, and he would meticulously create a masterpiece. The great masters of portraiture could capture the character of a man in a single image that would echo through the ages, the only true immortality. It was on this pedestal of superlative perfection which Hanz placed himself.
He was aware that no other artists of the day felt the way he did. This did not bother him, the fact that some painters could connive ignorant clients to hand over large sums of money for useless tripe gave to Hanz the opportunity of creating something truly sublime. Yet, when artists gloried in their faux success, gabbing about the hard work they put into a sloppy painting, Hanz often grew furious. In those moments of fury he had to close his eyes and picture his favorite work of art: A Holbein portrait of Sir Thomas Moore. After he calmed himself, he would sit alone in his apartment and contemplate the agonizing years he had spent in perfecting his craft.
“I suppose we could start with the yard,” said William Thornton.
William led them out of the living room and into the main hall toward an oak door. Before opening the door, William paused for dramatic effect. He was cheery at the thought of giving a tour of his castle, the envy of the whole block.
“You’ve no doubt walked these gardens with my wife. Never, my dear boy, have you experienced the William Thornton Tour. Heard of a little story about an Old Garden with a boy and a girl and their apple? Well, here’s my sanctuary, my pride and joy, my Garden of Eve.
With a smile like a baboon, and a flourish of his hand, he slowly opened the huge door to reveal a deep green verdure perfectly manicured, and as if on cue a flock of blue jays glided out from one luscious green tree to another. There were endless tracts of trimmed green lawns. Bush sculptures protruded from the earth on either side. Ahead and to their right was a sculpture of a nymph playing on a pipe with a little girl clapping her hands in enjoyment. William beamed. He then tore his eyes from the beautiful garden in front of him, and turned to witness Hanz’s reaction. He did not see the countenance of utter awe and admiration that he had expected; a look he always witnessed when he performed his ritualistic tours of his domain. For a moment both men were completely silent. The birds stopped chirping. A loud lawnmower coughed, sputtered and died. Thornton’s voice choked in his throat. Hanz’s face cast a dark pall over the gorgeous scene. His eyebrows were bunched together. His fist clenched the notebook, causing some of the paper to crinkle. A vein on his neck was visible. If Thornton didn’t know any better, he imagined that Hanz had a presentiment to jam the pencil which he gripped like a dagger, into his eye socket.
Thornton spit a little as he uttered, “Is… Is everything all right? You haven’t even glanced at the garden. My wife already showed it, didn’t she? I’m sure she ruined my surprise completely. Sometimes—God I do love her—but she can ruin a surprise. Or a good joke. You know what I mean? She just spits out the punchline wrong, or she does this stupid little thing where she looks at her fingernails and changes the topic. Just imagine! She doesn’t even finish the joke. It’s maddening. Do you know people like that Mr. Zoberman? They do something that is utterly maddening and you don’t know what it is about that thing. Like what my wife does. Do you know?... Mr. Zoberman?”
William stopped talking, aware that Hanz was taking in every syllable he uttered and judging his soul.
“Mr. Zoberman,” he said again. “Have you seen my garden?”
“You’re not looking at it.”
“I’m not here to paint your garden.”
“Did you change your mind about the tour?”
“We’re taking the tour.”
“I see. Let’s continue, I guess. Would you like to continue?”
“I’ve never stopped.”
William started to say something else, but Hanz’s eyes continued to bore straight through him, so in an attempt to maintain his calm, and get out among the safety of his workers, he popped his knuckles and began the tour.
They came to a golf cart and William offered Hanz a beer, which he tersely declined—his eyes never leaving his subject. As they drove through William’s private golf course, he began to regain his confidence. Every few minutes he would pull over and talk to one of the workers. Men in green overalls with brown, wide-brimmed hats. From a distance they were all alike, yet William instantly was able to identify them by name, and he even spoke to them in broken Spanish. They would force an obsequious smile and accept his hearty back-slaps as though a dictator had paid them an unwanted visit.
They came to the swimming pool which had a series of small spas interspersed around it. William informed Hanz that if he were to fly overhead, the pool would appear as a large golf club with several golf balls placed around it.
Driving up to the 6th and final hole, William was in the middle of telling a story about how the president had come to play golf with him.
“The president of your company?” Hanz asked.
“Of the United States!”
They paused again. Hanz wanting more information about where he worked, and William wanting to astonish Hanz.
“Tell me about what you do to acquire all this wealth. I know it’s not inherited.”
“What’s it matter?
“I cannot paint a portrait of a man unless I know him.”
“That’s ludicrous! What’s there for you to learn? You can see my nose, my eyes, my hair; you can see my body, what the difficulty? In San Francisco last year I sat down for five minutes and received a nice little self portrait from a street artist.”
“I’m not a street artist.”
“I didn’t mean to insult. I just want this to go faster.”
“If it takes me a year, I will accept nothing less than that. Craftsmanship takes time.
“Well my business dealings are none of your concern. Just paint.”
“Tell me about a hobby of yours.”
This made William light up as if from an unknown source. “Why boy you’re standing in an award winning privately owned six hole golf course—in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods, I might add.”
He led Hanz around the 6th hole. There was a pond with white swans, and a sand trap in the shape of a tiger’s claw. The hole was designed to frustrate the best of golfers. It’s irregularly shaped curves were angled deceptively downward, tricking the eye from a distance.
“This one even tripped up Benny McCinnis.”
“Who?” Hanz asked.
“Who!? Who’s Benny McCinnis? Four time Masters winner. Only the greatest golfer of our era—and my close personal friend.” He finished by mumbling: “who doesn’t know Benny McCinnis?”
“Take me back to the house,” Hanz commanded.
Upon returning to the living room, Hanz glared at William as a judge does a criminal.
“Tell me about the artwork you’ve chosen for your home.”
“Ah. Yes of course a talented artist like yourself would recognize such splendid pieces of artwork. There’s a very interesting story behind each of these purchases. For this one I was in Paris talking to—“
“It’s a picture of Christ’s birth and it’s next to a picture of a blank canvas with two green dots.” Hanz interrupted.
“Look at this one,” William continued, “it’s a Holbein. Not an original unfortunately, but someday…”
“And this one?” Asked Hanz referring to a large canvas with colorful swirls that appeared done by a child with cerebral palsy. “What made you purchase this one?”
“It’s almost parochial in its simplicity. The juxtaposition of blues colliding into grays and yellows brings out the somber along with the jubilant. I imagine that one moment, the painter was morose from the loss of a lover, and the next experiencing exultation at recalling a memory of her face. Sure, it would be nice if the painter had drawn some bit of her face, but I rather enjoyed experiencing the colors.” Hanz had read the same article William was plagiarizing.
Hanz stayed silent as he returned to the wicker chair, with his drawing pad splayed on the ground in front of it. He glanced at the two angry slashes. The tendons in his right forearm popped out. He ran his left hand through his blond hair. Then, his head craned upward from its dark rumination, and he calmly stated: “Mr. Thornton. I cannot paint a portrait of you. This has been a mistake.”
“What do you mean!? I’ve paid you. What the hell was that damn tour about and all those questions and the way you kept staring at me with those damn eyebrows all scrunched up!”
“I will of course return your money.”
As he exited the front door, Hanz thought of his recent clients. One woman he was to paint demanded that he include her little leprechaun of a dog in the painting, and when he informed her that he did not work like that, she almost threw the dog at him.
Hanz opened the door to his car and Mr. Thornton, standing on the steps of his castle, yelled out, “You’ll never work again. You hear me? You’re through!”
They had all said that.
“Art is useless.” The old trite phrase bounced around the inner sanctuary of Hanz’s mind, while he was driving through a winding mountain highway, with the wind wildly whipping his blond tresses. His upturned nose scrunched, causing his skin to bunch in displeasure. There was more, and he knew it, for he knew that art had laid the foundation for every important achievement in human civilization from written language to space travel.
A yellow sign off to the side of the black road portended the danger of a rockslide, which brought Hanz’s focus back to the task at hand. Up ahead was the road leading toward his destination: an ancient diner he often frequented. It was distanced from the embodiments of human civilization, but connected spiritually. He felt a kinship to the location; the diner seemed to have been borne out of the mountain, and the people were as ancient as the progenitor from which they came—adding a layer of life and purposeful activity to the stolid surroundings. Several years ago, Hanz had painted the diner. The owner offered to purchase the painting, but Hanz could not part with it. Now, money was depleting, and so he had to consider departing with several of his most prized possessions.
Another sign post ahead shifted his focus once again. It indicated a once flourishing and now dead mining town. He had seen it many times, yet there was a unique ruddy hue in the sky this dusk, which made him consider today would be different. The town that he had viewed a thousand times would be imbued with a new soul; a new soul requiring Hanz’s keen and adroit abilities to capture on canvas.
He never doubted his abilities to paint whatsoever he desired. His years spent perfecting his craft were merely a prelude to the immutable images of the most immense emotions he experienced about the world around him. Hanz’s sense of beauty was ensconced on the highest point of the Rock of Gibraltar. It was entranced from the first moment when blinding light beamed into his infant pupils. He found joy in every lilac, beauty in every laurel, and splendor in every rainbow. Upon his first attempt to draw an earthly object, he chose for his subject a dandelion.
As a child, it was the first time he had every encountered a dandelion. The door to his rusty family car opened and he had imagined that a cloud had careened toward the earth, crash landing on the location of their family picnic. The white, circular, fluffy globes arrested his vision. He ran among them, and frolicked and gamboled in the late afternoon, the sky a reflection of the fluffy earth. Hanz picked a dandelion and ran around, until he noticed that soon all that remained was a green stalk. Like the Will-O-Wisps he had read about, it had disappeared into the ether. His ragged jeans scraped against one another as he ran to pick another dandelion in the imitable sea of white impurity. Then, approaching his mother—whose white dress laughed magnanimously at the attempt of the dandelions to create harmonious beauty—Hanz’s outstretched hand presented her with the flower. Again, it had betrayed him. Where were the white petals?
They had fled from him, and, although his mother smiled, took the ugly green stalk, and kissed his sweaty forehead, Hanz was furious. Her laughter rang through his ears, but did not subdue the ferocious child. Without warning Hanz sprinted to the car, searched around the back seat and emerged with a blank pad of paper and colored pencils.
All that could be seen next was a swift blur of blue jeans, red-tattered shirt and blond hair, which cut through the forest of white, leaving a trail of dandelion petals in its tracks. Hanz investigated every petal. He sketched the triangular and the circular. He picked flowers, squished them in his fingers and took note of their substance. His parents watched in amazement, and, as they had become familiar with the ways of their indelible child, they decided to leave him to his own devices. Nothing could induce Hanz to shift his focus from whatever he had set his sights on. They went for a stroll, while their son stood frozen in front of a single dandelion. He had stopped breathing. The wind blew, and his heart beat so fast he could feel it in his toes. All the dandelions lost petals to the angry North Wind, except for the solitary flower that had caught his fancy. Cautiously, as though he were a lion tamer approaching a wild lion, he sat down next to the rare flower. His pencil became imbued with the life of a mad scientist careening out of control. He scraped it savagely across the paper, challenging the reality of time to a duel to the death. His pen versus the ravages of natural destruction.
His pen won.
The untrained boy put the finishing touch on his flower, a final line to the final petal, when suddenly, as though a God had taken note of the child’s temerity, the very petal Hanz had completed drawing blew away into the cold black night.
Hanz stood and looked at the living flower and then at his drawing. He kicked the flower. Every petal floated away, to one day birth new life, but would become nothing compared to Hanz’s perfected creation. Then, clasping his drawing to his chest, he ran to his mother. The blackness of night did not startle him. The small flowers flapped against his shins and knees. One tree which curled and twisted in ancient wisdom, commanded a position on a hill. Hanz could make out the silhouette of his parents. Stalking them like he did the flower, he froze and stared affixed by an emotion beyond his grasp. He did not witness a scene of a wife and husband or a father and a mother, but of a man and a woman. The man held her tightly in his arms. The woman had her right hand on the man’s chest. Her lips were curved slightly upward. A verdant forest played behind them, and Hanz imagined a wood nymph with furry legs and the ears of a donkey, creeping in the background and playing a wooden flute while dancing all around the two. The smell of pine overpowered him. The man’s arms encircled the woman’s thin waist, Hanz could see the veins in his father’s hands as they trembled in mighty power, resisting and commanding. He drew her close. His thick strong lips enveloping and bruising her soft red ones. She feigned resistance and then collapsed in his arms, surrendering to the power of his unrelenting pulsating body. The kiss that lasted an eternity.
Hanz knew at that moment—child though he was—that this is what he would dedicate his life to: Capturing a moment like this one; to present an image of true beauty to the world, and thus make mother nature bow in inadequacy.
His mother noticed Hanz standing and watching them. She did not blush at being caught in a moment of dark intimacy. The man still clutched her dainty waist, sending a private message that they should go home immediately. The woman glowed, and Hanz, who rarely smiled, started to laugh. He ran to her and presented his flower.
“It’s wonderful, I shall treasure it until the day I die.”
“And then?” asked the very young child.
“And then, someone else can admire it.”
“Mother, I spent hours trying to find the perfect flower. It did not exist. This is what I saw in my head. I want you to have it and to live forever!”
“All things wither, my son,” said the venerable man.
“Not this,” said Hanz, pointing to his drawing.
Another sign burst him from his reveries. The mining town was just ahead. One craggly mountain loomed behind him. He pulled over to the left side of the road, got out of his car and walked around the edge of the cliff side. The vantage point he was standing upon overlooked the entire town. Broken down huts, large buildings with faded yellow paint, and dark shafts like the inside of a wolf’s mouth stretched deep into the formidable mountain. Each gaping hole was covered with black and brown boards with a sign that read: ‘Danger! Keep out.’ There would be time later to perfect his painting. The dead could not leave. But this moment must be captured. The reds of the setting sun blasted through the town like a furnace. As his ferocious pen strokes almost disintegrated the defenseless paper, Hanz Zoberman once again dueled mother nature. The town in his painting would only vaguely resemble the dead creature he looked upon. His town would be full of life.
A black bird cawed behind him. He threw the drawing on the ground. He broke his pencil and tried to destroy the dead town merely by the might of his arm flinging the painting that he held in his hands. A flock of birds positioned on a prominent to his left flew away at the howl that emanated from Hanz. He was on his knees grabbing his hair.
Occasionally, Hanz would lose control of all of his faculties. His hands no longer belonged to him. His throat burned with the voice of another. His body possessed by a demon. He recovered, and wiped a single tear from his smooth skin. When he saw the perfect lines of his drawing, the notes on the setting and themes, the radiant colors, he knew this would be an awe-inspiring image; an image no artist alive could capture.
Although, there was no longer an artist with talent like his, there were times when he envied other artists. Meeting them, he found that their method was simple, straight-forward, easy. To the degree an artist would capture an object as it was, they merely reproduced as exact a replica of it as they could; altering nothing, recreating nothing, only reproducing like a photograph. He recalled one portrait painted by an acquaintance. In this case, Hanz had met the subject, but found it impossible to put two lines together, even after having known the man for a month. Hanz’s colleague met the man once and painted him within the span of ten hours—receiving a sizable sum of money in return. Hanz would never forget the final product. The recollection made him cringe. There was a pistachio colored background, no objects of any kind, and the man’s countenance appeared exactly as it did on every occasion Hanz had seen him: demure, gentle, but with a sense of naivete toward the world.
Hanz believed that people’s virtues—or at the very least their vices—must be the material of art. But their mediocrity? Their averageness? The part of a human which reveals itself only in the stagnant and savage was something Hanz’s view of the world would not permit to capture on canvas. If Hanz would paint men, then they must be King’s among men.
Without an ability to uncritically join the physical traits of man to canvas, he was relegated to painting landscapes.
Picking up his drawing pad, his pocket began to vibrate. Calmly placing the pad in the trunk, and then taking out his phone and clicking it on he asked, in a harsh and raspy voice: “What?”
“Hanz? You all right? You sound awful.”
“Everything is fine.”
“It did not work. My subjects must be told more about my methods, Burt. You’re my agent, before you send me in to meet with these people, I expect more thorough discourse on your part.”
“If you only knew. You see, I’m searching everywhere, sifting through all your callers to find that perfect subject for you. Hanz. I’ve a question for you. What if they don’t exist?”
“Samuel Messings exists.”
“But he’s the richest man on the planet, Hanz. Can you only paint the wealthy?”
“No. Only paint the worthy. Where they are or what they are doing is irrelevant. If I were to have found Samuel Messings in his earlier years, as a struggling techie working in a basement, my painting would have been no less noble.”
“This next lady might be promising. But. But I’m not sure. You’ll need to prepare yourself. She’s a real beaut. A woman who commands those around her. You’ve seemed to gravitate to that. I wish I could put my finger on it. On what you gravitate toward. Anyway, Hanz, the only word to sum up my feelings is ‘enthralled.’ Sometimes I wonder if I got into the wrong line of business. You know?” Burt chuckled.
“I need you where you are. Does this woman understand?”
“What’s your opinion of her?”
“I’m not the artist Hanz.”
“But I need you to be my eyes into the world. I can’t have my time continuously wasted.”
“Hanz. Do you need a loan?”
Burt gave directions to the client’s house. Hanz wrote down the details, and then stopped to look back toward the mining town. It was pitch black. But someone was leaving the dead place. He couldn’t make out the figure. It was more of a sense of a presence. The hairs on the back of his neck raised. Someone had disturbed the immaculate image in front of him. He wrote the final piece of information, and began his journey to the next location.
As he drove down the dark mountain road, he felt as though he were sinking into a dark chasm. It opened in front of him and he was falling; falling down a bottomless pit. There would be no magical enchantments like in the ancient stories. There would be no fatal conclusion. Falling endlessly in limbo would be his fate—he felt this as he pulled up to a house more ornamented and even bigger than Mr. Thornton’s. His worn tires crackled the rocks on the gravel driveway. To his left was a massive statue of a naked Lilith; two lugubrious lions were footstools for her clawed feet. Hanz could tell by the markings at the base of the statue that it was a recent ornament.
Grandeur did not bother Hanz—superfluity did. His senses became more circumspect as he stepped out of the car, as though one of the statues of a gargoyle would jump out and poke at his eyes, or a disfigured monolith of a Hecuba would swoop down and crush him. The lawn, the pool, the bush statues would have impressed William Thornton.
Hanz approached the massive mansion and stopped for a moment; he contemplated to what purpose a solitary widow would have in desiring to remain in such living accommodations. What was it that she kept inside? The impressive house of Samuel Messings sprang to his mind. That house jutted from an obscure mountain, seclusion a prominent feature. Enormous shafts of stone held it firmly to the mountain, and one massive window oversaw an uninhabited patch of forest. It was without a doubt an extravagant house, but nothing was chosen without careful thought. The single statue he possessed was of Demosthenes, the famous Ancient Greek orator who overcame a speech impediment by stuffing rocks into his mouth and speaking over the sound of the billowing waves—an adversity similarly overcome by Samuel. There were many stories of Samuel’s exuberance. When he was purchasing his private jet, he worked with fourteen different designers. Spending days and long hours choosing every feature, and ensuring that any ornaments suited his rigorous standards. This Hanz could understand.
Hanz decided to withhold judgment until having met the woman. Her character would reveal itself to him, for no one could hide their soul from him. Reaching the massive oak door, with carvings of Cupids shooting arrows at orgiastic men and women, Hanz straightened his back; coming to a full erect position, his head held high, eyes steady, as though a condemned man prepared to make his final journey down into a stony corridor with lonely cells on either side, a journey leading to a solitary chair with leather straps and a man wearing a black hood.
Hanz knocked and three hard pounds resonated through the inner sanctum. A clicking sound and then a cracking sound was heard in return. A soft lilting voice like a feather in the wind carried through the house, making its way to Hanz: “Just a minute, darling.”
He folded his arms, stood at attention and waited five minutes. The door made a loud clanging sound. It opened. Hanz had always believed that the senses were the purifiers of the soul—sight more than the others. This woman’s beauty was something impure.
One slippered foot peeked out from a flowing silver dress that rippled over her soft flesh. None but the hand of some mischievous God could have chiseled such supple features. Hanz stared intrepidly. The quicksilver woman became excited. His eyes started at her feet and made their way up to her knees; one knee was slightly bent and poking out through a slip in her dress, revealing a full and rounded white thigh. As an artist, Hanz had sculpted and painted dozens of nudes. He was a master of the human body. He had no difficulty imagining her in every possible position. His eyes scanned the curve of her hip, where she had placed one hand, and the other was situated across her flat stomach. She took a step forward and Hanz imagined a forked tongue flicking out. He examined her full and round breasts. Then her slender neck, and as if in response to his inspection her hand moved to lightly touch the skin at the nape of her neck. The full lips were painted with a hue of red. The soft white cheeks. The manicured eyebrows. In those moments Hanz had seen every inch of her, he did so in a way which none of her suitors ever had the audacity to attempt without her express permission.
“My,” She said and one side of her face moved up into what Hanz assumed must be a coquettish smile. Stepping forward she held her hand to him like a trophy for a valiant knight. Hanz had summed her up, and his disinterest showed in ever feature of his sharp-lined face. He grabbed her hand in a masculine handshake.
He acknowledged what was within her and brushed it aside, and she took the challenge. Hanz had encountered women like this before, they became infatuated with winning him over; they never did.
“Viola Huffington,” her voice no longer floated on the air, but seemed to be produced by razors on glass.
“Yes Mrs. Huffington I know.”
“Oh. It’s Ms. I’m a Widow.”
“Let us begin.”
“Straight to the point. I like that in a man. Admirable, Hanz. I never see men like that, at least not in the real world. Before beginning, tell me, dear, what’s the one thing you own that brings you the most pleasure?”
“I am here to paint your portrait. My understanding is that you are aware of my methods. To paint you, I must learn all I can about you. My agent…”
“Burtie? What a sweet thing he is.”
“...has informed me of general details as to your past. The process now may take some time, but the end result will be worth it. I assure you.”
“I haven’t a doubt… Informed of my general details? A girl’s gotta have a few things under her bed, darlin’. And, Mr. Zoberman, if you know everything about me, didn’t you know me to be a widow?”
“Just a test? You are a bad boy.”
Gently grabbing his hand as though it were another member of his person, she brought him inside. Hanz saw that the interior was worse than the exterior.
“My late husband left me this house. I think it too much, but they were his wishes. Here, sit, get comfortable, I’ll turn on the fire.”
“How old are you, Ms. Huffington.”
“You already know that.”
“Yes.” His face revealed nothing of his inner emotions. He held stolidly still just like one of her statues. She stopped and laughed, not a laugh of pleasure and joy, but of conniving.
“Expected me to lie? I’m thirty-two.”
Hanz broke the spell and inspected the rest of the house. It was once decorated in a logical and efficient manner, but now everything was covered by ludicrous frills. Flowers and white laces draped luxuriantly over the white and gray marble columns. Silver and gold ornaments draped around long pillars.
Hanz felt the urge to run. “What is it that you do Ms. Huffington?”
“Do? Well, I’m a collector of sorts.”
“What do you collect for? Museums?”
“For? Don’t be silly, dear. I collect to collect. Why does anyone collect trinkets owned by other people? I wish to catch a glimpse of what brought them pleasure. I gain understanding of the essence of a woman by owning her most treasured jewelry box, or of a man by his favorite gold watch. You may paint a person, but you will never be able to understand them without their trinkets. For instance, here is Thomas Edison’s chair. The chair where he invented the lightbulb—in my house! Can you picture him there? I can. He’s mine for those few minutes when I pass through the dining hall.” She placed her hand on the edge of the chair, trailing her long fingernail over the top. “It’s a thrill. Owning a piece of a person’s soul.”
“And what do you own?”
“I just told you, dear.” She stepped closer, “What do I need of anything else? This is pure joy, pure pleasure. Whenever I throw a celebration I can give to people a once in a lifetime experience. A view into the souls of men, as if I bottled them up and took them with me in my purse.” She held up an ancient vase, her fingers gripped it tenderly, “the design is exquisite, the colors, a feast. It was owned by a Duke. He used to slaughter peasant women at night. Oh! Hanz, you must see my private collection. Never have I failed in impressing a man with their delectable surprises. They’re hidden. In my bedroom.”
“Your husband died a year and a half ago?”
She stopped moving, the tight wire she balanced on had been plucked. “Yes.”
“How did you meet?”
“At an auction. I wanted something there. It held me enthralled. Johnnie said I looked like a pearl in a clam. Charming, don’t you think?” She had stopped smiling. “Most men, Mr. Zoberman, deserve to be turned to the swine that they are. Most men seek to conquer and toss aside anything they come in contact with. Johnie admitted to being the same way, in his youth. At his age he had learned to relish beauty. He called me all sorts of cute things. Before long, I had him for my own. He couldn’t live without me. Sure people judged, but I knew they could not understand what was possible when you owned a man like that. I had him possessed on my little island. Until he left me.”
Hanz watched her closely throughout the speech. He noticed that she never once took her eyes off of him, her voice played like a harp. Her mouth promised pleasure even as she spoke of her deceased husband. She would move to a mantle and adjust a clock that needed no adjusting, and the sway of her hips left a purposefully crafted image of a woman emerging from a soapy bath.
Hanz strode across the room and grabbed her arm. “Tell me. Did you love him?”
She leered. “Love. What does an artist know of love? I saw to his pleasure, and he to mine.”
Hanz gripped her arm tighter, leaving bruise marks. Her hand caressed her stomach, her hair flowed over her breasts as she held her head slightly forward in submission. Hanz knew, however, that not a moment went by without her complete control. He dropped her arm. She pushed her hair back and a flicker of a snarl flashed over her face—something that would have slipped the notice of another man, but not the observant Hanz.
“Viola. I cannot paint your portrait.”
Her tongue played over her white teeth. The silver dress swayed like the sea at midnight, and then she walked straight to Hanz. She pushed her body tightly onto him. Now there could be nothing left to the imagination. Another of Hanz’s senses was activated, but she remained the impurity for which he saw.
“If I’m not beautiful enough to be painted by you, stay for dinner and let me create a meal to impress the great artist. I’ve been told there are two places which are my special domain of enchantment. The kitchen is one.”
Hanz gripped her shoulders as he would a drunken man who tried to attack him at a bar, and he pushed her aside. She sprang toward him again. She placed both of her hands on either side of his head, blocking his path with slender arms and protruding bosom. There was no longer a veneer to her countenance. Her eyebrows bunched nearer to one another. Her ears flared up like a cats. Her eyes made rapid movements as they scanned his face. Hanz waited for the forked tongue to slip between her red lips and touch his face.
“You’re that kind. Fine. I’ll be what you want. Hanz. Sleep with me. Hit me if you want. Do it now. Take me upstairs. I’ll show you my secrets. You’ll not want to leave for seven years. There’s a whole world of physical pleasure I can show you.” Her lips touched his ears and she whispered, “I promise.”
Hanz understood that if he were to paint her, this is the image he would have to create. The clear judgment of his mind would allow no other image to occupy him. It was a world he did not want to enter. The image of a dandelion floated in between the man and the woman.
“No,” he said, shattering her spell with his greatest weapon. He turned to open the oak door, and walked toward his car. Viola flew to the porch as though carried by a flying broom. “You hack! I can hire street artists better than you. I know every important art dealer on the east coast, you’ll never…”
Hanz turned to take the reprimands, for he felt the repentance through verbal lashes might purify whatever was within him that failed time and again. He disarmed her by his willingness. She flew back into the house and slammed the door. A placard above crashed to the floor. It read:
“Most Men Pursue Pleasure with such Breathless Haste that They Hurry Past It”
“Many wonders are there, but none more wonderful than woman,” Burt whispered as if a soft moan in a darkened bedroom. “Wasn’t she splendid, Hanz?”
Hanz’s worn sneakers stuck to the tawdry theatre house floor as he walked to the green exit sign straight in front of him. He seemed not to take notice of the fact that human beings existed in between the sign and himself. He was pulled forward by some inner power, over which he was currently ruminating.
“Hanz? You must have loved that girl. I have never in my life seen an actress take an entire audience so completely in her hands. I wish I could explain what she did. It wasn’t just beauty. What do the Brits call it? I guess charm, but there’s more.”
“What?” Hanz said. His eyes locked on to Burt’s like an epileptic awakening from an episode. First came fuzzy outlines of a face, and with some effort Burt’s stocky frame and broad neck came into full focus.
Hanz liked his manager and agent. He knew that all of Burt’s other clients were merely a paycheck, and that he would lose them all to keep him. He was also aware of the ridicule and backbiting continuously going on in the background, all of which Burt shielded from him. Most other painters used Burt, but he sent shivers down their spine. Burt’s power was stored in every movement of his body. He shook hands like a gripper-vise, and then smiled like a baboon to make his clients feel a little more comfortable. They all needed him, but he only needed Hanz.
“My God Hanz. Did you sit through that entire play without seeing any of it? I’ve seen you in one of your moods before, but this is incredible. You know, you’re always searching for…”
But again Hanz was no longer listening. His feet moved swiftly out of the theatre house, and away from the dim lights. He moved with a vivacious energy, a vision which always excited Burt for he expected some great adventure whenever he saw the stolid man moved from some unknown source of power.
They were heading East. Hanz passed through darkened alleys with dumpsters of rotten fish and festering plates of forgotten meal. A sliver of white light opened ahead and a man came out of a doorway with a cigarette held in his fingertips like a string of rotten cheese found in the nearby dumpster; he asked Hanz for a light, but Hanz barreled through as though unaware of the inquiry.
Emerging from the maze of jailed corridors, Hanz spotted his destination. The smoky haze of the sea mist covered the base of the mammoth. Longer stacks of girders and brown rusting steel towered into the vast darkness. The outlines of some terrible monster. The soft whoosh of the sea sounded like a lovers breathless anticipation. It regularly beat out a pattern on the dry docks. Hanz commenced a dead run. Burt went after him. He saw him standing at the end of the pier looking at something: A ship. It had holes all throughout its hull. The keel was cracked and bent. Rivets were scattered all over the massive hull. It appeared as though a giant had come with massive shears to cut out pieces of steel in order to transplant the guts of this ship for other, newer ships.
But the ship was one of the grandest Burt had ever seen.
Hanz looked at the reflection of the ship in the moonlight pouring down over the pitch black sea. The silver moonlight reflected an image of what the ship used to be. Burt glanced down but only saw Hanz’s face.
An eternity passed. Burt knew to wait for Hanz to speak. No amount of cajoling could move him from his reverie.
Hanz closed his eyes. “Do you see it?” he asked.
“The beauty. A ship with skin of steel. Girders of iron. Motor of plutonium fire. This is the greatness that is man. This is what took savages from cave to empire. Imagine it. Being out there.” He pointed to the moon, a button in the sky now touching the farthest point of the ocean. “Alone. Just this ship, and a strength of character able to command it.”
“It used to be something. Now it’s dead.”
“Not dead: Neglected.”
“Is there a difference?”
“A thing neglected has potential. A thing dead does not exist.”
“I guess I don’t see the potential Hanz. Perhaps that’s why you’re the artist and I’m the agent.”
“You can see its worth. You can see what it can be. Close your eyes and look. Each generation of man passing down his knowledge, his trade. How to make a ship as grand as this one. A whole progression of millions upon millions. From the moulding of the red-hot molten steel to the carving of the plates and the millions of rivets all hammered to perfection…” Hanz breathed in the sea air. “It’s gone, Burt. The men today are no longer taught this tradition. There are no longer men who understand the purpose of every rivulet, the keels and the fire pits, the maintenance and even the soul of the ship. Routine has replaced knowledgeable precision of purpose. Monotony has replaced the lifelong pursuit of understanding. It’s all over. It sits there. Dead in the water.”
“Things aren’t all bad. Others will rise up with new creations.”
“Not new, just different.”
“You’ve always told me that’s what you’re here for. That’s why there are artists.”
Hanz flicked a piece of wood from the top rail of the wooden post out into the sea. “This ship and those which preceded had been built by shipwrights of superlative vision. An artist is a shipwright of man’s soul. But to create a better ship one must have the proper materials, otherwise one is merely drafting the impossible dreams of a fanatical madman. The material of man’s soul has been relegated to the scrapyard. I see no reason to pick it up for men as unworthy as exist today. I’m through.”
Hanz took a last look at the ship and headed back down the pier. He did not look back. But Burt was frozen. The pier swayed so strongly he felt it would pitch him over. Hanz’s strong and determined gait brought him to the edge of the final landing post on the pier. Burt chased after him, and, just as the tall lines of Hanz’s figure was disappearing into the darkness, Burt yelled: “What will you do?”
I”ll paint landscapes,” was the reply from the blackness.
Burt slowed and stopped in the glow of a final lamplight pushing against the sea of black. Hanz was gone and he wasn’t sure where to go. He stood listening to the crashing waves. A police officer on a motorcycle was staring at him. The curve of his helmet reflected the orangish light and shone in a radius around his vehicle. Burt felt like walking to him, but could not force himself to budge from the edge of the pier. He felt safer over the sea. Hanz’s last words sluiced through his mind. And he felt the dew which was not dew drop on his cheek.
In the afternoon sun, the holes that were bored into the mountain of the mining town did not seem so formidable. Hanz carried his easel, several notepads and pens to a remote spot he had seen a few days prior. The sun was still high in the sky, easing downward to illuminate other parts of the globe. The hue of orange made the ghost town seem alive. Walking toward the north side of town, Hanz descried the location he had viewed from his vantage point on the mountain road. The landscapes he would portray from this town would eventually consist of eight or ten different paintings. Some would portray the entirety of the town amidst the lake and surrounding hills; while others would portray a single slice of the town. Hanz would now have to rely upon this new series of paintings to bring the sustenance he needed to push him to his next random series of paintings.
His first subject would be a peculiar combination of humanity and nature. This was a particular site that Hanz liked, and knew he could improve on. Setting his easel in a small clearing, he took a step back to view his chosen subject. He kept a steady, piercing gaze on the scene, tearing it all apart in his mind. There was the lake flanked on both sides by two small hills. The hill to the west was slightly taller than the adjacent hill, but it was less appealing to Hanz, because it lacked character, which the other hill possessed. The hill to the east inspired an image in his mind, a moment he would trap in time like catching a firefly in a bottle. A boat was precariously tied to a thick branch on a tree that arched over a bench like an ancient man struggling to bend down and drink from the sapphire colored lake. The bench was old, painted red, but most of that was gone. Hanging from the old tree was a creaking wooden swing. Up the side of the tree were strips of vertical planks placed as a ladder. One thick branch must have been a spot for children to play upon during the day, and for lovers to make love upon in the night.
Hanz heard an animal howl far off in the distance. On the mountain road behind him a car screeched around the bend. He began to block everything from his mind; everything except for the crucial. Closing his eyes he heard the sound of the light breeze coming down as if on the back of Pegasus and rustling the green leaves. A trout jumped from the lake and splashed back into the water, leaving little ripples which created an image of the visage of a venerable woman. The boat rocked and clunked on the dock. He held his breath and was struck with the image before him. He picked up his pad and began sketching out the outlines of his future painting. His eyes held firmly affixed on the bench and the tree—
Abruptly a woman walked over to the bench, pushed the swing as though hugging an old friend and then sat on the bench.
Hanz was furious. The chaos of his surroundings burst back into his consciousness and he lost the perfected image he had been attempting to paint. He threw his pad on the ground and started toward the audacious woman. His mind rattled like the inside of a spray paint canister.
He quickened his pace, then, before starting up the small hill, he froze—struck by a vivid image. Something hammered at his chest as if trying to break out. His balled hands clenched tighter as though he were holding on to the side of an airplane. Sweat broke out on his brow. He was unaware whether it was the way she sat down with a power of ownership, or the way she hastily shuffled through her hand-bag and pulled out a stack of pristine white papers; he knew it was not she who did not belong. His vision was filled with her slender arms, her haughtily curved neck, which caused a small strand of hair to fall over the right side of her face, and her intense focus of mind which never allowed her a moment to consider that her hair or anything else may be an inconvenience. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He would never know whether it was a single movement that cause his reaction or the total sum. He never paused to consider what caused this feeling.
He was afraid to wrest control of his vision; he was afraid of losing control. To lose control would mean startling the feminine creature, gaining control would mean destroying the image she created in his mind. His blood bubbled. It was as though his entire world had been obscured by a dense fog, except for the figure of this woman sitting on a bench in an old mining town with a sense of pride that screamed to him she knew he was watching—and she liked it.
But he realized she had not noticed him, because he remained at the base of the hill, obscured behind the protection of several trees. This was it, he thought; this is the subject he had been searching for, the picture from his youth, the image of a woman. He must paint her.
It was not just the woman that he wanted to paint. For moments as he stared she seemed to transfigure from between a pale angelic figure to a lustrous supple vixen. She commanded both heaven and earth. He wanted to paint not the woman in her plain blue skirt and white blouse, but the shining figure he saw underneath. The handbag, black shoes, and hair clip were tossed from his mind. Immediately he created another image, a better image. His first sight was of her nude, long neck haughtily holding her head high into the sky, and with her long tresses draping down her back in steamy black rivulets; she gripped a golden sceptre with green and red rubies in her right hand, and an army of obsequies men, women and children trailed behind her. Next, another image came to his mind: Fog seeped into the background, covering the trees and the town with a white curtain like a daydream. Protruding here and there among the foggy background were buildings, six and seven stories high, brown and black in iridescent murkiness. Hanz looked down at her feet and saw men wearing blue shirts and red bandanas writhing in death—but taking their last breath to kiss her feet. She held, instead of the sceptre, a solid red, white and blue flag in her hands. Her small red lips facing behind her left shoulder at the army of peasants, their shirts were half opened, bronzed chests displayed in herculean manliness, and all were following her lead. Her nudity was now half covered by a plain brown peasant skirt which draped to her ankles, and a torn white blouse; her round breasts exposed to the gunfire of an unknown enemy. Then another image swept aside the previous. The men at her feet vanished and in their stead was a seashell. She was emerging from it, nude, her hair transformed to gold and became so long that it reached her intimates. Her half cocked head and wispy smile made Hanz imagine she was making an attempt to cover herself, not in her own modesty, but for his.
This slate too was wiped clean, and another replaced it. She now wore a long flowing silver and blue dress, seemingly formed from the shining sapphire lake. Her shoes were sparkling silver, and although imaginary, Hanz covered his eyes as if too bright a light were reflected from her ethereal figure. She was looking at something. With a strength unknown to him, Hanz shifted his gaze to the hill opposite her. He was astonished. There stood a man, a French soldier with a gold and silver sword hanging from his belt. The lake between them had dissolved into a sea of dirty half-naked savages with curved sabres, bald heads, and gold piercings arching all over their bodies; they were yelling and clawing their way up the hill toward the woman. She looked at the princely soldier, no fear marred her face, a slight smile of immense pleasure emerged on one side of her dawn colored lips. Her countenance spoke volumes. The dimple on the right side of her cheek, her furrowed brows, the half-smile all bespoke a challenge. She conveyed to the soldier a message: “What is taking you so long?” The soldier took several determined steps backward. He lunged forward, preparing to jump the dirty layer of fiends beneath them.
And then Hanz ran to pick up his sketch pad.
He sketched savagely. Some men were masters of the fist, some of the word, others the chisel; Hanz was a master of the pen and brush. His furious strokes were so demanding he ripped the first page. His next attempt was more self-aware but only slightly less ferocious. He sketched fifteen different pages, each with a unique aspect of the scene he saw. Surrounding Hanz’s feet were crumpled papers like fallen soldiers. Upon the surviving pages he began writing notes in an indecipherable scrawl that only he could comprehend. Some pages described ideas for colors. One had a note for another character, a savage hiding behind the tree with a long-knife gripped between his alabaster teeth. He sketched for an hour; his hand had rarely felt such joyous pain.
Just as abruptly as she had arrived, the woman rudely threw her papers into her handbag and stood up to leave. Hanz calmly placed his sketches on the ground. He cracked his neck and began to walk toward her. A sound of another car on the mountain road froze him in his tracks. He looked around and the dead mining town returned to his vision. He gripped and tore at the skin on his forearms. It was none of it real. Neither the image he had created, nor the soul of the woman he had imagined. He dropped to his knees and pushed on his temples like he was attempting to pop a tomato. He clawed at his own head and he could not make himself walk over to the woman.
The soul he saw in her was one he created. Meeting her would shatter the image. The reality would destroy everything. Like a thief he ran and grabbed his sketches—escaping behind the protection of a large pine tree. He peered around the tree and watched her hips sway like a docked ship after a long voyage.
“I have to think. I need time to think. Somewhere quiet. I need to think. I need quiet. Leave me be!” He shouted as if the trees and chipmunks would obediently bow to the wishes of a mad man.
His pacing watched by the living critters and the dead town. He stopped. The sketches had caught his attention and he walked over to pick one up. Every line was perfect. Hanz was a master who spent hours drawing out every line and object of his future painting prior to ever putting brush to canvas.
The breeze kissed his temples. His head returned to normal. For the first time he smiled. It was not a happy smile, nor was it sad, but rueful. A smile full of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. It was like an aged man looking down upon the wonder of youth, and seeing the entire span of their life. He wanted to laugh at the idea, he remembered reading of a knight in Spain, “The Knight of the Rueful Countenance.” That would be him from now on. He would take on that mantle. He knew what had happened to that particular knight, in the end. No matter, whatever his future, he would fight, he would sacrifice, he would die only to complete this painting, as that knight of a bygone era fought windmills and imagined mystics. Hanz knew too that he would have to see her more. He would have to inspect and invent her entire soul from afar.
And she must never know.
A sigh left his body, like he who is staring up at an executioner comes to terms with his fate. Hanz was aware of what this would do to his craft—as well as what it would do to the dream he had always carried.
His phone began to vibrate.
He smiled ruefully.
For days Burt would lose all sense of Hanz. It seemed to Burt that on occasion he drifted from continent to continent, floating on a carpet over vast deserts and seas. He called and yet would never hear from his favored client and friend. This newest absence was different. He had felt a tingling sensation at the cessation of every attempted phone call, when, like the realization that the hole in one’s ship is so large it cannot be fixed, for a moment one’s ability to act is crushed by an inevitable sense of doom, he sensed the crisis within Hanz. He didn’t understand, and could not put it into words, but only felt it. His friend needed him. He searched and called. He visited Hanz’s normal painting spots. For seven days Burt indefatigably called, searched, investigated, only to find all trace was eradicated, and thus he begin to consider filing a missing person’s report with the police.
On the eight day, Hanz called Burt.
Hanz was not the man he had been before, that night on the docks. He was not the man who said that men’s souls were like the dead ship out on the inky waters. He called and, in his usual way, did not think to ask Burt how he was doing, or why he might have been calling every hour on the hour. He simply burst into discourse on his latest project. His voice rose and fell as though being conducted by a master composer. Upon stating that he was painting a masterpiece, he would pause for long moments and sigh like a man whose lover just caressed his back.
Burt could forbear no longer—he had to come and see him. When he asked, he expected Hanz to refuse, he was prepared to deliver numerous persuasive arguments, but Hanz was unusually polite and merely informed Burt to ready himself for a jarring shock.
On the ninth day, Burt arrived at the mining town. He saw Hanz crouching behind two trees that rustled as though being shaken by a rambunctious child. Approaching, he stopped and inspected the scene that Hanz was busy painting. What was it Hanz saw that no one else could? Where was his masterpiece in the scene before him? These thoughts had never before so struck Burt as important as with this current painting. In the past, it did not matter as much, there was less at stake. Hanz knew what he was doing, and Burt would just smile and place a steady hand on his back if needed—it wasn’t.
This time Burt tried to see: He saw a woman seated on a dull red bench with the paint peeling off to reveal the dead wood underneath. In front was a tree that seemed to defy the wind as it rustled not; a flock of white and grey birds glided down from the sky to graze the water, leaving a small wound in the pristine crystal clear lake. Gazing around, Burt noticed the buildings of the old, dead town. Then he inspected the woman. She was pretty, he vaguely felt a glimmer of recognition. He thought she was rather gawky, and that she moved her arms with too much assurance. It was as though she were chiding him for staring. Her hair was frizzy, and she wore no makeup. Her clothes hid her slender yet curvaceous figure—which rather annoyed Burt.
Quickening his pace, he came to the spot where Hanz was crouching. His back held straight, his neck craned backward at an impossible angle. He looked like a bird of prey.
“You look like a thief,” Burt said, and Hanz jumped three feet in the air, he ran to Burt and put his finger to his lips. Burt was used to such odd behavior, so he obeyed and returned to his former ocular attempts.
Hanz raised a sketch from the ground. It was one amidst dozens; some crumbled in anger; some neatly placed on the floor with a rock on each corner to protect them from the occasional angry North Wind.
“What are these?” Burt whispered.
“Don’t touch,” Hanz said as if he were asked a question not by a living person beside him, but by the voice in his head.
The girl read from her stack of papers, and occasionally made a note in the margins. She wore a black top with black slacks and shoes. As Burt gazed at Hanz he realized he saw something else, he was having some strange vision, which would in some mysterious way become this masterpiece he spoke of. Again questions cut through Burt’s mind, but he remained obeisant.
Hanz looked on with his eyes closed for long sluggish minutes. There was the French soldier perpetually preparing to jump the chasm of bloodthirsty savages. One savage in particular was preparing to throw a spear at the woman. The savage who had previously stood behind the tree with a knife between his teeth had now transformed into a jealous husband, preparing to push the unsuspecting wife into the pit of snarling beasts.
After a few more minutes, the woman shoved her papers into her purse, and escaped from the scene. Hanz stayed still as the immovable and everlasting trees around him. Then as if set by some inner mechanism, he sprung to life and made several new notes and sketches. On one page with a sketch of the woman, he wrote to the side: “Gold?”
Burt cracked his knuckles. “You going to tell me what you’re working on?” Or need I see for—“ He had approached a sketch and prepared to pick it up.
“Touch them and you’re fired. Burt froze upon hearing these words. Never before had Hanz threatened him, but he knew that at some point, if ever a time came for a decision between his artistry and his friend; art would win.
Burt’s face had sagged to the floor. His shoulders caved inward, and he did not have the strength to close his hands. Hanz noticed and walked toward him.
“This is my life, Burt. All I ask is that while I’m working, you don’t pry too much. Once complete, you, as always, will be my first viewer.”
Burt laughed and put his hand on Hanz’s shoulder, who let him.
Hanz continued, “my friend, these sketches are for my next and last work. It will be made into millions of copies of plastic. It will be transfigured into postcards for people to send to grandfathers they hardly know; it will be placed on books and repainted on windows. It will never die. It is the last human portrait I shall ever paint.”
Burt cleared his throat, for he wanted to give a speech, a lofty defense against Hanz’s depraved attitude; instead he asked: “What’s her name?”
“I do not know.”
“Does she know you’re painting her?”
“You told me you had to know everything about a subject before painting it.”
“Except this one?”
“I am lying.”
“That could be said about all art,” Burt flung at Hanz, thinking that he was being melodramatic.
“No it cannot. An artist, a true observer of the world, need never lie. What he must do is stylize. He must select. He must choose the elements of a subject most worthy of revealing the deepest truth of a subject. Artistry is not deception. It is revelation.”
“But you are deceiving now.”
Hanz bit his lower lip. “Yes.”
Instead of pursuing the line of reasoning, Burt changed the subject and asked, “why can you never paint another portrait?”
“A man can only cheat once and maintain any semblance of his former character. Once the act is done, the toll on his soul begins to break him down. This deceit will destroy a lifetime of honest and rigorous judgment. From this painting is revealed only my youthful yearning. And I have to lie to accomplish it. This painting is the steel which will bore into my heart.” His face was not one of twisted torture. His bare feet did not curl in agitation. He seemed more serene than Jesus at the last Supper.
“This has been your life. What now?”
“I’ll live in homage to this one lie. A beautiful lie. For sustenance I’ll simply paint landscapes.”
“She won’t always return.”
“She will. Every day now, she has come back at the exact same time.”
“I know it may not be my place to say this, but might you be judging too harshly? You don’t even know who she is.”
“She is like the rest.” He walked to a sketch and picked it up. “It was once stated that women inspire men to create masterpieces and always prevent them from carrying it out. This is only a half understanding of the truth. The other half depends on the values held by the women of their time. The values not only of a woman on the street, but of the strongest and best of their era. The other half of this truth is an answer to the childish question: To whom do you seek to become?
“In dead eras, great men arose. All those who followed sought to become them—men and women. Their greatness was not chance or destiny, only sheer will-power to forge their souls by hammer of toil and turmoil. Did not Caesar seek to be an Alexander? Did not Ciceso Seek to be Demosthenes? Did not Aquinas seek Aristotle? Henry V seek Augustus? Lincoln; Pericles? But what of today? All seem to seek to be their next door neighbors, at best. Or whores, dipsomaniacs, and red-eyed fiends at worst. On one hand they are obsessed with running in the mud, on the other with fame and riches for its own sake. Burt, my friend, the other side of this edict is that the death of masterful art comes not from women or money and leisure, not from modernization, it comes from the degradation of our very souls. There are no Homers because there are no Achilles.
Burt sat on the grass and gently played with the top of the blades of grass which surrounded him, letting the tingling sensation from the tickling points course through his body. He looked up: “We have you.”
“Hanz, I will sell this to the world and show to you that you need not quit.”
“You will sell a lie.”
“All right. I have one final question. Are you in love with this woman?”
“There is nothing to love.”
“Whatever you need. I’m here for you,” said Burt, and his sorrowful eyes said, to pick up the pieces.
It was exactly 2:50 P.M. Hanz did not need to look at his watch. For the previous two Tuesdays his muse precariously threw her papers in her bag, and left at the exact same time. Every detail was exquisite, they all added to his repertoire of stored knowledge about his made-up heroine.
He knew this would be the day he would follow her, so he ensured he was ready to leave at the right moment. Hanz euphorically floated to his car and waited for hers to pass. When she did, he started his engine and followed after her.
At exactly 3:40 P.M. she pulled into the parking lot of an old dance studio, one that kept its elegance of class along with its old decorum. Every new nuance he discovered was like a feast to a starving man. He quickly jotted down notes with words and ideas about her setting, the jubilant way she exited her car, the skittish movements she took to the studio door—momentarily pausing to look over her shoulder, as though in recognition of his pursuit. A shudder overcame him. He had the unsettling impression she was leading him somewhere. Hanz quickly made note of this development.
Hanz was in the final stages of his preparations. His sketches progressed lucidly. Jotting down volumes of notes on all aspects of his future painting, he contemplated whether the woman was to have her hands interlocked in front of her, behind her, or one hand hanging down while the other was lightly touching her chest? If the last, which hand? Will her head be held straight or high; or perhaps coquettishly downward with fluttering eyelids? Should she be flat footed or leaning forward: perhaps backward? And this merely scratched the surface for his main subject. He still required the French soldier, jealous husband, savages. All of which would be entirely created from his imagination. The sole source of beauty and the integral core on his canvas would be this woman. In order to discover the infinite possibilities in all his selective avenues he wanted all the information he could attain. He would fill in the rest, which he never would have fathomed doing, merely a few weeks prior to first seeing his muse.
Hanz made his way around the outside of the studio, ensuring he would not be seen while watching her. On the side of the building he found his spot. Next to a dumpster was a long cement barricade about four feet tall and two feet wide. Across from the barricade was a window looking into the dance studio, it was at the perfect height to allow him to perch like a criminal and peer into the studio.
Hanz knew what he was doing was wrong, and even that he could be caught. “So much the better,” he thought. But he desperately did not want to get caught. He wanted nothing more than to stay perched on his ledge, spying on the only woman whose mere existence brought him joy. A woman who jumped, skipped, and controlled all that was around her, including Hanz. No woman could get Hanz to stoop to the level of hiding behind a dumpster for the mere possibility at gleaning one glance at her in motion. To view a flourish of her hand in radiant coldness; a coldness she exuded to the entire world, but which Hanz pretended was her singular determination. Hanz was not a man to lie, but he knew he had lied to Burt.
The realization made him come back to reality. The creature he was inventing did not exist. Not here, amongst useless millionaires and stunted heiresses. The person he created was an unreachable goddess, belonging in the mythological era. She was like Zeus’s first wife, Métis, a woman with a cunning pride that eventually terrified even the king of Gods himself.
His doubt, harnessed by the ridiculous position he found himself in presently, was all washed away at the sight of his muse floating across the dance floor in perfect harmony to music unheard to Hanz, but which seemed to ring in his head all the same.
He inhaled every detail, breathing it in like an enticing toxin that would destroy him, but not until it gave him one last feeling of exuberant joy.
His sketch pad once again began filling notes and sketches of the scene he saw, everything from her partner to the aged dance instructor. Hanz’s smile never left his face; for a moment, in between his stream of notes about colors, sizes, gestures, costumes, and lighting, he looked up and during a lull in the music - Hanz could have sworn she looked straight into his eyes with a lurid smile of challenge.
Then, at exactly 5:15PM, the feeling was gone, along with his muse, who was leaving the studio.
Hanz jumped down from his perching post and ran to his car. As he waited he went through his notes and realized he was almost ready to begin his first and last great work of art.
Her next destination was a shopping mall. Hanz felt a rush as though he were an enemy spy tailing someone in a spy novel. He parked and followed her in. She stopped at an upscale department store and came out five minutes later with a small box in her hand.
Soon after leaving the mall she parked in front of an apartment building. She ran inside and Hanz stayed in his car - fearing to lose track of her. As he watched the apartment the sun dipped behind the back of her building, and the city-lights began flickering to life. A light on the fifth floor was turned on, and a shadowy figure of a woman appeared. He was certain it was his muse. She raised her hands above her head, slipped into a dress, and examined herself in a mirror. While she was making up her hair Hanz was struck with a feeling like he was swimming against current, uncertain of how much longer his muscles, lungs and constitution would hold out; he was unable to lift his head above water to ascertain where land was. The danger he faced was getting too close a look behind the false image he had created.
He looked at his sketches and notes, determining it worth the risk. If he was to paint this woman it would have to be his best work. Only the greatest painting he’d ever seen could justify what this was doing to him.
Just as he decided upon this course of action, his muse exited the building in a bright red and gold dress with only one piece of jewelry, a gold necklace. Hanz knew this piece of jewelry was a crucial missing ingredient to her image.
She left and Hanz followed.
At 7:05PM she stopped outside one of the best restaurants in town. Hanz waited around the corner as his muse stood casually next to a beautiful fountain of a nymph surrounded by brightly colored lights. The sinking feeling returned. He felt like running, but his feet were riveted to the ground. This was it, he thought, either the image of his muse would be destroyed, or he would have his last bit of information. He was not sure which gave him more trepidation.
A young man with cleanly cut hair, a brilliant Italian suit, and impeccable posture rushed up to Hanz’s muse and hugged her, leading her inside the restaurant.
Hanz followed them inside taking note of where they sat.
“Reservation, sir?” Asked the host.
Hanz nonchalantly threw the host a large wad of cash. It did not register to Hanz how small his bank account was becoming, for his life depended on what he would see next.
The host escorted him to the opposite side of the restaurant, where a large pillar blocked Hanz’s view of the two young people he was spying on. He immediately moved over a few tables.
The host followed him and said, “Sir this section is cl—“
Hanz threw the host another wad of money, while feverishly looking at his muse and this attractive young man. The sinking feeling returned. This time Hanz reveled in the pain, realizing it was something he rarely experienced: jealousy.
It bubbled within Hanz as he glanced at the happy couple. Every nuanced gesture and shift in posture was like a knife in his belly. He felt the agonizing fire rising up every time the young man said something and unleashed his perfectly white teeth onto the world. His muse responded with a gay and fluttering laugh.
Her laughter woke him from his seething reverie. This was the first time he had ever heard her voice, and it reminded him of the Catholic Church bells that would ring by his house every Sunday when he was a child. This awakening gave rise to the realization that he had everything he needed to begin work on his painting. Hanz gathered his things and, just as the waiter was coming to take his order, he left.
Unknown to him, a pair of dark azure eyes followed his every awkward stride to the door.
The brushstrokes were sure and steady. They were pushed and pulled by a determined will, one that painted without restrain. The painter expertly moved the brush along the canvas. The image was unlike any scene ever witnessed by man. The painter merely replicated the scene in front of him. Yet, there was a sense of beauty that nature could never match.
Hanz was painting a partially frozen stream in a forest. On the canvas, a light emanated from an unseen source, illuminating only what the illuminator thought worthy. The light shimmered onto the stream, stressing the whites and blues of the bubbling froth. No longer was the forest marred by a recent fire as it had been in reality. In Hanz’s world, this fact was tossed aside.
This would be how he would survive, for now, he thought. He would never make so much as a sketch of anything human. The thought no longer terrified him as it did immediately after the sale of his last painting.
Hanz had at times pretended he required one more look at his muse to complete the painting. When he looked at the painting of his muse, and the sketches that had given rise to its perfection, he resisted. There could be no turning back. He knew he could never see her again. To do so would be suicide. To reach the shores of Atlantis, flee, and then return would be a violent corruption.
A persistent wind pushed him forward and whipped past his ears as he put the finishing touches to his painting. He enjoyed knowing he could not hear his phone over the sound of the wind, but he could still feel the outside world vibrating in his pocket. There was only one person who ever called him. Hanz knew Burt would call back, so he finished the painting and started drearily packing up.
Again his phone vibrated. He picked it up, “hello, Burt.” The voice on the other side talked for several minutes and finally Hanz replied, “I’ll be there.”
Hanz stood in front of a theater house along with a throng of patrons, all waiting to enter. It was opening night for a new play. For months he had paid little attention to what was occurring outside his studio. His dirty old sneakers flopped against the cold hard concrete as he meandered toward the ticket booth.
“They’re sold out,” Burt said with a wide grin. He looked like a mischievous child who had just ran out of a candy store with chocolate on his fingers. Burt glanced up at Hanz’s face, he saw for the first time the creases, lines and slight beginnings of saggy cheeks as though someone had pierced them with fish hooks and began tugging. Burt felt like the hidden clearing in the forest of his youth had been burnt.
But then Burt remembered his secret and was able to cheerfully lead Hanz into the theater.
“The woman who purchased your painting gave us two tickets. We’ll see her after the show,” Burt clamored, thinking the silence too harsh even in his exuberant state.
“I do not wish to see that painting again. So long as she doesn’t want to talk about it, I’d be glad to thank her for her patronage.”
“Don’t you worry,” Burt beamed up to him.
Hanz and Burt were seated in box seats. Hanz was relieved that he would not have to sit next to anyone. He did not notice people staring at his paint covered clothes, or his unruly hair. He did not look at the program he was handed, and he did not listen to the person announcing the play. As always, Hanz was thinking of his muse. He remembered every detail he had seen, and those he never would. His mind drifted to an image of the curve of her neck and the arc of her back. He recalled the desperation his last sight of her instilled within him, and, the laughter that accompanied it. She laughed as if lying naked in a field next to her lover. There was no resistance, no barriers. The sound of her laughter resounded in his mind time and again like a percussion grenade blowing away the life he had always envisioned he would be forced to live.
The curtain flew back and a voice was heard offstage. The voice’s owner was the same one presently sluicing through his brain. Then came the laugh. The character of a princess was being escorted on stage by an 18th century French soldier. They were running to get away from the girl’s family. Hanz gripped his seat as though the entire planet had evaporated around him, and only his seat was holding him up from an abyss. Burt glanced at him but was too frightened to say a word – one does not tempt a bear upon waking from its slumber.
Hanz sat riveted. He didn’t budge through the entire play as he saw his muse, dance, sing, and act in a manner that drew the audience into a world they had never expected to encounter. She exuded an aura of strength, pride, and grace as naturally as a tigress.
At the climax of the play, a loud gasp was heard in the audience. Hanz wondered who was impertinent enough to interrupt such a wonderful play, until he vaguely noticed a few people looking his way. What he saw in front of him, however, made it impossible for him to breathe properly.
He stood to his feet and leaned over the balcony attempting to reach for the image on stage, wanting to ensure it wasn’t a tormenting illusion of his imagination. He stood staring at his muse perched on a hill, one hand held to her chest the other rigid by her side, her head held high and a look of challenge on her face. On another hill across the stage stood the French soldier, preparing to gallantly jump a pit of savages who were attempting to kill the princess. Hanz’s painting had come to life. Even the jealous husband stood behind a tree preparing to push the woman into the pit.
Hanz stood, staring, until the play was finished. As the audience rose to their feet and gave the performance a thunderous applause, Hanz’s countenance began to sparkle and catch fire. His eyes gleamed with the song of rage. Burt was extending his hand in triumph when Hanz turned around, and walked away. Burt started scampering after him, but stopped. He knew Hanz had to face what was in front of him on his own.
Hanz knew exactly where to go, and he cut a swath through the people like a carpenter splitting wood. He saw his muse talking to some patrons, her accursed laughter cutting through his skull, one more disappointment he had to face. He stared at her. The dim lights illuminating only her, and leaving all those around her in the semi-glow of her reflection; she tossed her hair back and suddenly took notice of Hanz Zoberman glaring at her.
She abruptly stopped talking. Her arms dropped to her side and she met his menacing stare with a haughty, insolent look. She looked like a revolutionary rebel about to be executed for crimes against the crown. The people around her continued talking as she walked away. He followed with a single-minded determination that made those around him scatter for cover.
Hanz followed her to her dressing room. Brutally, he flung open the door. She froze, unafraid, her hand poised to remove a piece of jewelry. Hanz stared at her but said nothing. She continued removing her costume jewelry, neither were sure if he would demand she remove everything.
When all that remained was her theater costume and the gold necklace, Hanz finally spoke, “Stop.” She obeyed and looked up at him for further instructions. Hanz continued to scrutinize her, the hawk-like visage scrawled all over his face. His muse gracefully stood up and held his gaze, prepared for any action he might take.
Hanz’s mind returned to the sight of her standing outside a restaurant, her hand touching her throat, her back slightly curved as though she were lying in an uncomfortable position—waiting.
“You think I stole your image,” she stated matter-of-factly. The sound of her voice carried effortlessly toward him, chipping away at the wall in his mind.
He scowled at her, his hard voice pulsating powerfully from a deeply hidden site, “didn’t you?”
“I wrote that play two years ago, Hanz.”
“You know my name?”
“I purchased your painting. My name is --
“No. I don’t want to know. I’ll refund your money,” said Hanz with too much emphasis on your.
“I wouldn’t accept. It’s mine.” As she said this she began walking to the other side of the room, her heavy theater costume twirling around her body like a carousel.
She ignored the command and moved behind a changing closet. She reemerged with Hanz’s painting, and carefully placed it facing him. His anger began to fade to confusion as he looked at the painting.
“Do you understand what you’ve done?” She asked.
He looked her up and down for a long moment, analyzing every part of her. To the two of them she stood naked in his studio, open to his unmerciful brush strokes. He finally looked back into her eyes and said “I’m beginning too.”
“Were you the one I saw at the restaurant when I was with my agent?”
His eyes revealed a fire of anger at the mention of that moment.
“Did you get all the details from that one time of seeing me?”
The question pierced through him. “No,” he said, and for the first time he seemed beaten.
“So you think I am beautiful.” It was not a question. She said it with the simplicity of a physicist explaining the law of gravity to a roomful of physicists.
Hanz walked over to her and held out his hand. She quickly took off her necklace and handed it to him. He weighed it in his hand. It felt like small worlds had been precariously handed to him and he suddenly pushed them out of his mind, along with what he realized was his gravest error.
“There was a time I had believed there to be no beauty left in the world. Until I saw you, it seemed that aspect of the world was not real, and never could be. Men begged me to make an image of their greatness like the one I made of you. They threw money at me, but they ignored the one part of a creation of that kind which could not be bought: their soul. I had begun to lose hope, so I faked yours—or so I thought.”
From inception to this moment Hanz’s life had been an ever straightening curve guiding his passion to capture the world as he saw it. Now, he looked at his muse who was not a figment of his imagination, but a living and radiant soul that matched his own. There would no longer be a bend to his actions; he would never have to cheat.
Hanz responded to the buzzing world that was still going on outside by closing the door. She looked at him as he always saw her in his dreams, a smile of challenge on her face. Once more his eyes and body demanded everything from her. She stood still and escaped from the fabric that had encompassed her. They were no longer hindered by a loss of courage in facing the world. Hanz tossed all that away. He answered that fire within him with the strength of his arms pulling her helplessly to his body and crushing her mouth with his. For a long moment their warmth touched each other’s flesh, and they each relished in the image they now created. An image of savior and saved, which even Hanz could not project on canvas. Their lips met and swept away the dense fog and murky waters of the strange reality they were surrounded by.
To Hanz the breathtaking exuberance permeating from her soul, as he embraced her unhindered body to his own hard form was the first and only answer to what he sought, and what he had achieved.