The surgery took twelve hours, the recovery two months longer, but when they unwrapped the bandages he knew it had been worth it. Even though he'd expected his skin to be raw or damaged, the only evidence of the surgery, beyond the color difference, was the pruning of his purpled digits and the ugly black stitches along his wrists. The doctor released his hands and they dropped like dead weight.
"On the table," the doctor said. Jonah placed them clumsily. The doctor pricked each finger and seemed satisfied, despite their wriggling independence. "No nerve damage," he said and checked the pulse. "Good. After rehabilitation, your hands will regain strength."
Jonah stared skeptically. "It worked?"
The doctor continued the tests, ending with a satisfied sigh. "All signs point to full recovery. You'll be back painting in no time."
A cab took Jonah home and he asked the driver to open the apartment door and make change from the cash on the coffee table. When he was alone, on the sofa, groggy from Vicodin, Jonah tested his hands' mobility. He concentrated on each finger in turn and, after a moment, the index finger twitched. Good. He focused again, and his thumb bent slightly. His heart raced. It had worked. The only danger now was if his body rejected the transplant. But there was still no feeling. He scraped his hands against the sofa, unable to tell the difference in texture between the smooth leather and the splatters of flecked paint.
He flipped his hands over, deliberating on their appearance in the diffused light. The color difference was a problem—the pallid whiteness contrasting with the light brown of his wrists. A small price. Before the doctor told him about the radical new surgery, seemingly out of science fiction, he'd thought he'd never paint again. These hands were so different from his old hands, burned and splotched with turpentine, permanently stained with paint. Although these nails were long, the cuticles had been groomed, no calluses along the palm, delicate and soft, as if from a boy. Jonah's cat, Rublev, purred against his leg and she sniffed his hands, trotting away unperturbed.
After the excitement and worry of the past weeks, the feeling of limbo, it was finally over, and an exhaustion seeped through him. Upstairs in his bedroom, he dropped into a deep sleep, occasionally disrupted by dreams of pain and war, of barbarian hordes invading from the West, of drowning.
The doorbell woke him and he found the blanket bound tight around his hands. He stayed still, recalling something important, forgotten, and the bell rang again, and he remembered—a last minute appointment, a meeting with the head of the L-Boothe Gallery. He sprang out of bed, trying to flatten his hair, rounding the stairs just as Lonnie Boothe and his assistant Keiko Taneshiro walked through his unlocked door.
They paused, staring up at him. "It was open," Keiko said.
"Did we wake you?" Lonnie Boothe said, not an uncommon question; he believed Jonah slept entire days away. Boothe's bald head glimmered in the overhead light. Despite his vaguely European accent, he favored Hawaiian shirts and jeans and spoke in a wispy thin voice.
"No, I've been up," Jonah said, hearing the thick, just woken slur of his own voice.
"We need to talk," Boothe said. Without a morning pot of coffee, perhaps because of the lingering affects of medication, Jonah felt disorientated, Keiko's face swimming in the periphery as he concentrated on Boothe.
"What?" Jonah said. He swore Boothe had started on about mergers and contracts and his disorientation increased, the ground seesawing beneath him.
"Deals and responsibilities," Boothe said. He paused as Rublev the cat rubbed against Jonah's legs, and his gaze fell to Jonah's hands. "Oh yes, the surgery."
"The bandages came off yesterday," Jonah said, pushing the cat away with his foot and she mewled in protest.
"So this is why you insisted on business over the phone." Boothe studied him. "Why keep a secret, Jonah? We're on the same side. Why must I hear about your life from Keiko?"
"I had to tell him, Jonah," Keiko said, cocking her head. "He couldn't get in touch with you the last two days and panicked."
"Why, Jonah?" Boothe continued. "Why must you and Keiko act like high school girls with secrets? I could've reminded you of the commission which, I hope, you didn't forget. Confirmation came this morning. The painting's due in three weeks."
"We understand you've been through extraordinary circumstances," Keiko said.
"Pardon me," Boothe said. "But fuck extraordinary circumstances. Fuck it up the ass. Everyone has extraordinary circumstances. I want to emphasize, you promised you'd be ready. Are you positive this will be the case?" His gaze traveled to the recent surgery and under his casual veneer, a beat of repulsion showed.
"Oh sure," Jonah said. His hands had been wringing his shirt in consternation, but he knew how to answer this question. He'd learned long ago never to turn down a job, and a confident, competent front came naturally, hiding his fears over his new hands' mobility.
"Okay, we're done," Boothe sighed, smoothing his shirt. He turned to Keiko expectantly. "Coming?"
"I have to meet Karl Izer downtown," she said. "I'll be at the gallery by the hour."
But when Boothe left, Keiko did not leave, gliding to the sofa and gesturing for Jonah to join her. A year ago they'd had a brief drunken fling, a liaison he worried she'd forgotten by the offhand and natural way she acted. Perhaps it had been his fault. They'd run into each other on the street after the accident, and he'd been abrupt, trying to hide his crutches and his desiccated and useless hands, imagining the horror in her eyes.
"I meant to visit you at the hospital," she said. He shrugged. He knew her job meant constant travel across country. "Did it hurt?" she asked.
"No," he said. The surgery could not have come at a better time. Money worries had gnawed at him for months and, if not for this new commission, he didn't know how he'd pay his bills, especially without health care. And even though his hands weren't in perfect shape, he could overcome their inertia through dint of will.
"How strange," she said, taking his hands on her lap. "A miracle."
"They don't disgust you?" he asked.
In reply, she slipped his right hand through the buttons of her shirt, resting the palm on the swell of her small breast and, even though he couldn't feel anything—sensation ended at the stitches on his wrist—his fingers stirred. Why wasn't she repulsed? But she'd seen them blackened and gnarled, when they'd been even more repugnant. She put her hand over his hands, still cupping her breasts. An image of naked bodies, twined like ivies hovered in his mind.
"I have to see Boothe at the office," she said. "I'll come back, if it won't bother you."
"I only have three weeks to finish," he said.
"Say no more," she said. "I'll see you when you're ready." Even before the door closed, his mind began calculating the image of lovers for the finished canvas.
He drafted for hours, but when he arose at noon the next day, his insightful and clear ideas had somehow turned hazy, his drawings incomprehensible. He balled the drafts into the garbage.
He started on the painting anyway, laying a coat of red paint over the canvas, setting his mind in a proper state. Ipod blaring—he always worked with music—he bobbed his head, rubbing his chin in concentration. He began with the background but his hands would not work, lifeless and lumpish as clay, and he wrung them, trying to coax them to life. Finally, at the end of the first hour, they worked skillfully, accurately, the broad strokes burgeoning to life.
But after lunch, a shudder of disappointment rippled through him. Munching on celery sticks, he examined the painting from different angles. No, something was wrong—the colors muted, the shapes indefinable, not at all as he'd envisioned, what he thought he'd painted. He discarded the canvas and began again, Charlie Parker bopping once more in the background, he loosened up and it felt better, but at the end of the day, he realized his visions had been corrupted again, each part in conflict.
Days passed in similar fashion, a pure vision when he woke, followed by crushing disappointment upon reexamination. By the third day, he realized he had to accept the flaws—no time to start over until perfect. The only important thing was completing before deadline. Although he tried to focus on the work, the outside world intruded into his thoughts, calculations ticking through his head, how without money from the commission, his medical bills could ruin him.
Three weeks later, exactly on the due date, he finished. He dropped the painting in the back seat of his car, quickly, as if unclean. At the gallery, Boothe was busy directing the installation of the new exhibit and couldn't see him immediately, so Jonah walked around the gallery, watching the preparations. When it first opened, the gallery had looked like the renovated warehouse it was, with an unbroken, decade-long streak of unsuccessful businesses. Lonnie Boothe, despite his pretensions, his peevishness, had turned it around. Along the walls hung signs announcing the work of Karl Izer, a recent graduate of RISD in the flush of youth and confidence, whose career had been marked by talent and luck and the resentment of peers.
"Finally," Boothe said, hustling from the back room, wearing a red shirt with parrots hiding in green leaves. "The patrons pestered me all morning and I told them, don't worry, it's reliable, old Jonah, like the geyser. He won't be late."
Jonah placed the canvas on the floor. "Who are they?"
"Private contractors," Boothe said. "Hold on. David, be careful, that's worth more than your salary. Listen Jonah, I can't tell more. All I can say is they requested you specifically."
"Why me?" Jonah said. Only now did he think about the commission's singularity. When dealing with an unestablished artist like Jonah, patrons generally had a specific vision in mind, but Jonah had been given complete leeway.
"Who knows," Boothe said flippantly. "Why pry? Perhaps they've seen your work and liked it." He rubbed his bald head impatiently. Once upon a time Boothe had been more felicitous. During the courtship period, when the gallery had been unknown, he'd called Jonah every day, promising the world. Jonah had been a local celebrity with a promising future, but when little had come of it, he hadn't been surprised when Boothe began taking days to return calls, until Jonah, in his pride, no longer bothered.
"Come on, Jonah," Boothe said. "Unfurl the painting. Let's see the result."
Jonah hesitated, hiding his disgust with his own work. He'd long since abandoned the idea of art for art's sake—the creed of every young artist—as only the purview of amateurs or the rare cause cèlébre, and his accident furthered his belief in the importance of money. So he kept his face blank, knowing he possessed an honest streak that revealed itself inopportunely. As Booth knelt to examine the painting, Jonah focused in the middle distance, at the bold, vivid images of Karl Izer's work, and he felt old and spent, realizing not only his time hadn't come, but that in all likelihood it never would.
"Good, good," Boothe said indicating it had at least been adequate. "They'll be pleased." Jonah stared at it again, shamed, unable to see any virtues, understanding its creation arose from a strange, internal conflict. Boothe had already turned away to speak with an assistant. As Jonah walked to the exit, he trailed his fists hard against the concrete walls, room to room, until he recognized an echo of pain.
Sucking his skinned knuckles, he started the car, trying to forget the painting. But as he drove over the bridge, his hands began turning the wheel, gently and then inexorably, as if to spiral him into Lake Travis. He wrenched the car straight. What had happened? Still, no more incidents occurred on his drive home. It had been only in his mind, the loss of control from the wind.
The door was unlocked and he smelled food even before entering. Keiko was cooking, apron over black pants.
"You're early," she scolded. "You ruined the surprise."
"How did you get in?" he asked.
"I stole a key," she said. "Taste this. My mama's recipes."
"You stole my key?" he repeated.
"Oh, I'm good at that. Spy stuff. Once I broke into an ex's apartment and hid all his stuff."
On the table lay a plate of vegetable tempura and two bowls of miso.
"Eat," she said. "The rest will be done in a second." He picked up chopsticks and began shoveling food into his mouth. For a long time, the only reason he ate was not to waste away, his diet subsisting of Cliff Bars and, if the wine didn't run out, bottled water.
"I'm glad you've regained your appetite," she said, watching his voraciousness with pleasure. Now after the initial hunger had been sated, Jonah let the food linger in his mouth, pursuing the tastes of batter and tentsuyu sauce like a fading scent. Ever since the surgery, he'd cut off cigarettes cold turkey, and his sense of taste had revived. She refilled his wine glass and set it beside his plate. "A toast. To your new painting."
His face reddened. "Don't talk about that fucking painting," he said. His fists clenched even thinking about that atrocity with his name on it. When someone asked the identity of the artist, they would say his name. He mastered himself with an effort, realizing she wouldn't understand his displeasure. He didn't himself; usually he could approach his art with irony and good humor. Why did this work fill him with such loathing? "Let's the boon to empty pocket."
She accepted his toast and the rest of the dinner passed in camaraderie, a bottle of Shiraz and another, legs touching under the table like young lovers. And then they were in the living room and she was kissing him and they clenched, straining against each other on the sofa, her hands groping his body, tongue touching tongue, his arms raised over his head, through the hallway, clothes shed, her teeth raking his neck, bodies tumbling into bed.
He stretched, luxuriating, as her naked body sliding over his, her breasts, the heat, arms heavenward, then she stopped.
"What's wrong?" she said. She crouched at the foot of the bed, a palm still pressed on his inner thigh.
"Come here." She grabbed his arms but he resisted. "Why won't you touch me?"
He stared up at his hands.
"I don't mind," she whispered, but he did. He couldn't articulate it, knowing how crazy it would sound. Nevertheless, he could identify the feeling to himself. These hands, with their independence, their pallor, it would be as if a stranger touched her right in front of him.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She rolled off him and looked at him oddly, and he thought everything was ruined. Instead she kissed him. "No hurry. It'll take time."
He woke to the sun shining, his temple throbbing, and Rublev crying, scratching at the bedroom door. Turning, he saw his own right hand sliding over the curve of Keiko's bare back and he sprang from his bed, startling Keiko awake, and retreated to the bathroom.
"What are you doing?" he said as his fingers twitched against his face. In the mirror, he appeared haggard but fundamentally the same, his eyes bloodshot from drink. He rubbed the bristles and when he saw his hands in the reflection, the vague pain in his head sharpened. He downed a Vicodin and started shaving. As he drew the razor across his face, a terrible thought came—what if he cut off these hands? It would be like destroying something foreign, not harming himself, and he could be free of their strange influence. With enough pain pills, maybe it wouldn't hurt. But as he contemplated the action, he knew he lacked the courage. He splashed water on his face and returned to the bedroom.
He found Keiko dressing.
"I have to meet with a new sculptor in New York," Keiko said. She told him, while he was in the bathroom, Lonnie Boothe had left a message on his machine. As she slipped on her black shirt, she said they needed to keep their relationship secret because of a relationship she'd had with Boothe a long time ago. "But you knew that," she said. "He gets possessive even through we're not involved anymore."
He paused, still carrying the razor. "You and Boothe."
"Of course you knew." She told him about Boothe's crush, how he'd started acting so weird around her she began worrying for her promotion. Sleeping with him seemed the simplest course. "No big deal. It was just sex. A one time thing. Anyway congratulations."
"For what?" Jonah's mind still reeled from her confession.
"Lonnie's message said you got a new contract. Your appointment's at one."
As the door closed, Jonah's right hand reached after her. What was this? His hands' independence frightened all other thoughts from his mind and he struck the wall twice, the scabs from the day before cracking open. Above all else, he had to find out why this was happening.
The doctor tutted at his bloody knuckles but did not ask how they came about. Instead, he said: "You haven't kept your appointments."
"Sorry," Jonah said. He'd never checked his machine, wanting to immerse himself in the artistic process and ignore the outside world, especially when his paintings went badly and he needed to focus.
But the doctor had not been too angry. He'd been shocked by Jonah's range of motion, how the scars along the wrists had healed. "As you know this was a new operation," the doctor said. "Very delicate. The real possibility exists of infections or your body rejecting this organ. Frankly, I'm amazed your hands are in such good shape." Like before, the doctor tested each finger's sensitivity and this time, Jonah felt the pricks. "Good," the doctor said, shedding his gloves. "Seems positive. I'll see you next week, same time."
"I have a question," Jonah said and the doctor's professional, expectant expression made him feel silly. "Um . . . I don't know how to put this. What would happen if I lost control my hands?"
The doctor did not appear nonplussed. "It might seem like that at first. They'll take time to get used to," he said. "It's like playing tennis, you know how awkward it feels the first time you pick up a racquet. You're probably overthinking things. Let it come naturally. Relearn things will take a good while."
Jonah didn't persist. Perhaps the doctor was right and everything had been in his head. Best put it from mind. He was already running late for his appointment at the gallery and he sped through the streets, parking at ten past one.
Boothe waited in front of the new displays, the artwork more staid than Karl Izer's, and he appeared harried and beset, wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt, somber for him.
"Jonah," he said. "A word." He led him to one of the empty rooms, the concrete walls bare. Stacked on the table were brochures for the Karl Izer's recent show, as well as a tray clotted with used napkins and cubed cheese, a wine glass smeared with purple lipstick. The exhibit had garnered lackluster reviews and Jonah wondered if that explained Boothe's new attentiveness.
"Your patrons rang," he said. "They want more. This could be the mother lode, Jonah, a steady buyer. Precisely the ticket to jumpstart your career."
Jonah walked over to a collection of canvases on the corner, leaning one to the side for a better view. "Who is he? My patron."
"She," Boothe said absently. "I can't tell you. You know that."
In the main room, a few workers had begun setting up the display. Along his scars, his wrists throbbed as if about to fall off.
"When's the new painting due?" he asked.
"Whenever," Boothe said. "You finish, you get paid." His face crinkled into a smile, an older man in his mid-sixties who'd put aside his own painting career for the responsibilities of the gallery, but Jonah guessed he retained the sensibilities of a frustrated artist. Jonah had seen Boothe's early work and judged them technically proficient, strange without being innovative, more academic exercise than marked by inspiration. But who knew where it would have led? But he'd chosen a more financially viable career and grew old without pursuing his desire. And Keiko had been obligated to sleep with him, a terrible act no matter how she portrayed it.
Boothe wandered by the crates. "Remember the first time we met," he said. "This gallery was nothing. I said you'd be one of our principal artists and it took time, I'm sure you lost faith, but look at you now. As I predicted."
Jonah no longer listened. He pictured Keiko, naked and vulnerable, swathed in pure white, a dream Keiko, one that needed saving. He shook his head. Sentimental bathos, sure, but the image lingered and, as Boothe reminisced of earlier, more exciting and fraught days, Jonah, in his mind, had already dashed on the first coat of paint.
The work came easy, as it rarely did. At the end of the day, Jonah could examine the painting with equanimity, but had been surprised at how Keiko's nudity, intended to be innocent and beautiful, had turned dark with lewdness. No matter. Whatever had created the internal conflict of the first painting now energized him and he sensed his paintings coursing with fresh, vivid life. When he presented the painting at the gallery a week later, Boothe careful studied it so intensely that for a moment Jonah worried Boothe had recognized Keiko by the bare back of her body, but when he didn't say a word. A few days later, Boothe indicated the buyer's vague dissatisfaction, but she hadn't articulated any reasons, and so Jonah did not know how to address her concerns. In any case, things were looking up. Despite her objection, the mystery patron had requested another painting and Boothe mentioned Jonah's inclusion in a new exhibit.
"Strike when the iron's hot," Boothe said in his faint accent.
Only after accepting did Jonah hear the title of the show: "Artists Overcoming Disabilities." His work would be displayed beside a nine-year old cancer victim and a sculptor who'd been shot multiple times in the forehead with a nail gun, who'd subsequently lost his sense of smell. Yes, Jonah should be upset, but to be part of a show again. For the first time in a long while, his paintings would be presented to the public and sold, and his efforts surged with purpose.
On Monday the doctor removed the stitches, pronouncing the surgery a success, although Jonah still required monthly appointments. Without the stitches, the abrupt shift of color was more apparent and a thin scarred line encircled his wrist. Jonah balled his fist, then extended his fingers wide. His hands now. Jonah placed his left hand on the coffee table and began sketching with his right. He discarded the painting he'd been working on, instead placing a new canvas on the floor. He put on the only classical music he owned, "The Best of Bach," at full volume and when he finished, the sun had set. The curls of paint glistening on the canvas, raw and alive as oysters. He'd never worked with such passion and he wondered if he'd either unearthed some wonderful insight or created a disaster.
The next day, Boothe accepted the canvas without comment, only mentioning how the patron would lend Jonah's two previous pieces for the show.
"Look over your old stuff," Boothe said. "See if there's anything you want to show." But later, when Jonah pored over his collection of unsold paintings, he found them vaguely dissatisfying. He'd embarked on a different direction and when Boothe called to set up their next meeting, Jonah had already started a new painting, one he found strangely beautiful and disturbing, filled with shapes and shadows, feeling his way through the painting. A creeping uneasiness, so fleeting he couldn't articulate it, beset him as he painted, as if spying a crime through a half-closed door, and he welcomed the phone call's distraction.
Boothe wore a red and green Hawaiian shirt, the color clashing with his drawn face. Once again the exhibit had not gone well and already "Artists Overcoming Disabilities" had undergone criticism. The nine-year old terminal cancer patient had been exposed as a fraud. He'd stolen the identity of the patient in the bed next to his, Boothe flushing a dull red describing the situation.
"A pneumonia patient! Who'd buy a painting from a fucking pneumonia patient? Pneumonia isn't sexy. The disease is catching. People won't approach him. But we'd have a blank wall and since it's impossible to uncover another dying kid in time so we have to use this fucking fraud and hope no one notices. This pisses me to no end, Jonah."
"Are the paintings good?" Jonah asked. An aria from a Puccini CD he'd bought soared in his mind as he listened to Boothe's complaints.
"Well, you know, he's nine years old. Seven years ago he learned to shit in a can. But I want to speak about your painting. The patron won't release the last one. She said it's too personal."
"Did she like it?" Jonah asked, the Puccini reaching a beautiful passage, his fingers threading the air in time. Classical music had never affected him before but now it overwhelmed him.
"She wept like a child," Boothe said, pausing, and Jonah roused, sensing danger.
"Did she request more?"
"I can't tell," Boothe said. "The way she reacted, I figured she loved it. As you know, art is connection and this painting connected. Before, she'd order a new one immediately, but not this time. I swear she loved it more than the others. I don't understand myself."
Even though by no means a sure thing, Jonah had counted on the next commission; without it he'd return to struggling. "Would it help if I spoke to her?"
"Look at this shit," Boothe said, indicating a wall-sized splotchy painting. "Like a kindergartener. You have time to finish? The show is only days away."
"I can find time."
But Boothe wasn't listening, rubbing the top of his head. "She never told me to keep her identity secret and she loved that painting, I'd bet money."
Jonah should be pleased by the opportunity to continue the commission but he thought he read a thinly disguised disdain behind Boothe's voice. "Did you like it?" Jonah asked.
"I have to be honest," Boothe said. "I liked your more traditional work. This new direction mystifies me. It's beyond my understanding but, again to be honest, who cares what I think. What sells is what counts."
Jonah tugged his tie, not daring to loosen it for fear of destroying the knot. Up north, the houses gradually became bigger and more elaborate and he hadn't been surprised at Mrs. Vance's expansive mansion overlooking the lake. After parking in the horseshoe drive, Jonah wandered the grounds, noting the partitioning of the property: a pool house, the white gazebo, the guest house, all separated into a grid. The strangest thing was the sense of familiarity, as if he'd seen photographs of these grounds long ago.
An old Asian man answered the door—a servant, Jonah had never met a servant—who spoke to Jonah in Chinese.
"I'm sorry," Jonah said. "I don't speak."
"Follow," the man said with a thick accent. "Mrs. Vance will come shortly."
Trailing behind, Jonah assessed the decor with a mounting dislike—expensive and gaudy. A stylized, gilded portrait of a young girl displayed in the hallway and Jonah's first commissioned painting hung over the fireplace.
"Wait," the servant said and padded away, leaving Jonah alone with his old painting. After a moments perusal he supported his previous judgment, noting the awkward uncertainty of the stroke, the central figures positioned obviously. But the more he looked, unimagined options began formulating—what if he developed this section more?—and his hands ached for a brush to set the painting right.
"So you're the artist," a woman's voice interrupted his reverie. Jonah turned to face a woman appraising him coldly, her manner oddly familiar. Probably in her late forties, early fifties, a tanned woman with bobbed ponytail and sculpted arms, a creature created by gyms.
"Yes," he said.
"You're trying to convince me to invest in new work," she said. "Or maybe to convince me to release the last painting for your show."
"First, I want to thank you for your patronage."
She waved dismissively. "I'm excited by your work. Hard to imagine all this comes from one person." The living room was decorated like a shrine, the walls covered with paintings of the same girl from the foyer, clearly a young Mrs. Vance, with only one of a large, florid man and a few obvious bare spots, as if paintings had been recently removed.
"Let me see those hands," Mrs. Vance said. "I want to see what created those beautiful pictures." She guided his hands under a desk light. "What happened here?" she asked, fingers gliding over the few remaining stitches.
"Surgery," he said. "Nothing major."
"And you still paint?" she said. "I hardly believe it." Her expression became rapacious, as if capable of plucking his limb from body. She hadn't released his wrist and he wondered how to withdraw gracefully.
"Now your eyes," she said.
"I want to see the soul of the man who drew these." Strange things afoot, he thought, but here was someone who could grant him financial security. She touched his cheek softly and Jonah forced himself to focus on the clear blue of her eyes. And then she brought his right hand to her own face, stroking his fingers absently with her left hand. After a moment, she sighed, released his hand. "Eyes are windows to the soul," she said. "Who said that?"
"No clue," he said, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his pant legs.
"I'll release this painting for your exhibit" she asked, and he saw the covered canvas propped against the piano. "Who is she, if I may ask?"
"A friend from the gallery. A woman named Keiko Taneshiro." He felt his hands slowly claw into his leg. He squirmed, aching to return to the studio, suddenly worried the strange momentum from the past week would dissipate.
"An excellent friend no doubt," Mrs. Vance said. "I imagine you captured her essence perfectly. Can I request you no longer paint her? She's pretty but not the type I want hanging on my walls."
"Of course," he said. This meant she would commission more and her request seemed a small against her magnanimity. In any case, his mind already outpaced the old paintings into places fresh and unknown, and recently he'd resembled a dog straining its leash, sensing exciting experiences nearby.
"Are you painting anything now?" she said, her long fingernails ticking on the side table.
"Different from your previous paintings?" Again, her cold blue eyes raked over him and a sense of familiarity chilled through him.
"Yes it is."
"Good," she said and she stood like a master dismissing a servant. "I'll pay money to see it."
She was a mystery, he thought, stripping away his tie as he drove, as if from a Dickens' novel, a gothic widow more appropriately in a crumbling mansion than in tennis clothes in Texas. The shrine to herself, the pictures of that old man, her obvious possessiveness, the rapacious interest in Jonah's hands. But he had accomplished his goal; he'd reinvigorated her interest.
Once again, he found his house unlocked and, unsurprisingly, found Keiko sprawled on his living room rug. They stayed in that night, raiding his refrigerator after fucking, finding only celery sticks and granola bars. So they ordered in pizza and ate it, naked, on the rug, chatting about artists they knew, about predictions on the direction of art. The next day, she took off work to spend with him and, despite this break from studio time, he couldn't recall ever feeling so at peace.
It was time for the exhibit at the gallery and, after she'd returned from fetching a change of clothes from her apartment, he found her squatting in front of his newest, unfinished paintings.
"These are different," she said.
"Are they?" he said, knotting a tie. She squinted at the painting and, as he re-saw the boldness of his new work, he ached for her to share in his excitement at their creation. Boothe didn't understand, but she would.
"They're nice," she said.
"What do you mean, nice?"
"I don't know," she said, carefully. "They're interesting. Not as professional as your other paintings. Different." She spoke so hesitatingly it infuriated him.
"Why don't you say precisely how you feel," he said and something in his voice made her fall quiet. She hadn't understood. On the drive to the gallery, he struggled to bottle his anger but it was as if some poison coursed through his body.
All through the gallery opening, every time he saw her near Boothe, a wild jealousy sparked in him. His hands clenched his wine glass so hard it broke and he brushed them into the garbage can, barely able to speak to the people in suits and fancy dresses, asking for his paintings' meaning and how he found his ideas. After his few curt remarks, they left him alone and he grabbed another glass, banged it down, and shot a malignant glance at the crowds surrounding the nine-year old pneumonia boy.
Keiko approached cautiously.
"What?" Jonah said, his voice harsh. She'd removed her pashmina wrap and seeing her bare shoulders, he felt a twitch of desire that did nothing to ameliorate his anger.
"I wanted to see how you're doing."
"Fine," he said, and stalked away, surprised by the urge to hurt her, the rage and lust bubbling through him and he wondered why his emotions suddenly lay so close to the surface. He walked into the warm, humid air, traffic bustling, drunken conversations far off, young voices brimming with vigor.
"Here's the artist," Mrs. Vance said, cigarette poised and, clapping fist to palm in approximation of applause.
He swallowed, trying to drain emotion from his right voice. "Thanks," he said.
She tossed her cigarette underhand into the street. "My son loved art," Mrs. Vance said. "You never knew him. He's the one who got me to sponsor shows to help you struggling artists. He would've loved this."
"Too bad he couldn't make it," Jonah said.
"Oh, he died a while ago," she said flatly. "A fragile boy, weak, who spent most of his time indoors dreaming of things he had no hope of accomplishing." Mrs. Vance lit another cigarette and stared at the Frost Tower, glowing in the distance.
"I'm sorry," Jonah said, at a loss. A drunk couple, college students, staggered across the crosswalk, dangerously near traffic.
"He died of a heart attack in some whore's bed," Mrs. Vance said. "She wanted him for his money. Maybe what happened was for the best. Nineteen years old and set to marry, no matter what his father or I said."
The couple had made it to the other side and Jonah glimpsed their faces, not drunk and drowning in love as he'd imagined, but ashen and miserable, clinging together to remain upright.
"That's terrible," Jonah said. His hand crept up and down his leg like a spider and a coldness slid down his spine.
She shrugged, smoke dribbling slowly from her lips. "Maybe it was for the best."
Jonah gazed after the couple disappearing down the street, unwilling to look at Mrs. Vance, avoiding the expression on her face. He sensed her gaze centering on him. A strange story to tell a stranger, but her sponsorship made her a Medici to his Fra Angellico, so perhaps different rules applied.
"That's her, isn't it," she said, aiming her cigarette towards the gallery window. "I was right. Pretty:"
Keiko was talking to the newspaper reviewer and Jonah looked on with equanimity, until Boothe approached, bent to kissed her on the cheek, and the twinge of jealousy erupted again, and something snapped.
"Excuse me," he said and walked through the door, shoving through a knot of people and gripping Keiko's upper arm hard to draw her away.
"What are you doing?" Keiko asked, stumbling as he hurried her away.
"Come back you two," he heard Boothe's voice say coldly.
Jonah stared back at him with a look that said you'll never touch her again, she's mine, she's mine.
For days Keiko wouldn't return calls and no word came from Boothe. Jonah struggled to work, self-recrimination, images of Keiko's anger and disappointment interrupting his flow. What had possessed him? Finally, on one of his daily calls, Keiko answered and they began a slow rapprochement. She said she couldn't understand what made him behave this way, like a teenage boy in the throes of a jealous first love. He apologized but damage had been done. As she feared, Boothe shunned her, addressing her solely when necessary, and then only formally with none of the previous friendliness. She was being sent on protracted assignment to Denver and Miami, shit work, but she would make it work and succeed.
"I guess I'll be the adult in this relationship," she said. She left without a full reconciliation, but with promise.
But his momentum had been disrupted. The work went slower and with greater difficultly, only moving forward through will. He'd returned to the old methods, when inspiration, when it came, seemed to burn out midway through a painting or after a single morning. This time work seemed even more frustrating after the ease of the last paintings.
To make matters worse, Mrs. Vance had taken to calling at all hours, and he could think of no way to avoid answering. After telling the story of her son, she now felt free to tell him anything, about her husband constantly away on business, about her charity work for the underprivileged in Africa, about long ago affairs; she never mentioned her son again. Whenever Jonah was on the cusp of begging off to concentrate on work, she'd promise to pressure Boothe for a show on only Jonah's work, or to finance a series of paintings to keep him financially secure for years. Every day her stories lost him at least two hours, and a week later he could find no excuse to avoid meeting her for coffee or lunch at a small coffee shop near his house.
"Are you still seeing that woman?" Mrs. Vance said during one of these excursions. Across the street a law office was being constructed with a constant thump of jackhammers. She slipped on sunglasses, observing on a young worker hanging a light fixture. It had started sprinkling.
"She works at the gallery," he said. "Hard to avoid contact."
Mrs. Vance grabbed his hand. "I prefer you didn't see her," she said. He withdrew, imagining how they must look like lovers in a lunchtime tryst, a thought that filled him with resentment.
"That's not your choice," Jonah said slowly.
"I see," her voice cast cold and formal. She fished a twenty from her purse and positioned it deliberately in the center of the table, stood and left without another word. As he walked home in the rain, he realized with one sentence he'd destroyed all hopes of financial security, of artistic freedom. When bills came due, he'd return to temporary teaching gigs with no guarantee for the future, back to the struggle for time to paint.
He daubed at his latest work but all inspiration had dissipated, his new copy of "The Marriage of Figaro" no help, so he stared at the canvas, trying to imagine the final creation. But now, with Mrs. Vance almost surely dropping her patronage and probably refusing to buy this new piece, he'd lost his will. These past months had been a paradise. Only in art school did he have the similar freedom just to paint, no other obligations. He was loathe to lose it again.
From far off, the doorbell broke through Mozart's chorus. Outside the violent thrash of thunder and rain pelted the roof; in his concentration, he'd been deaf to it. When he answered the door he found Mrs. Vance, soaked through.
"I couldn't leave things that way," she said, eyes glittering desperately. Her body shuddered and for a second she seemed to surge towards him without moving. "Please, invite me in." Jonah realized there were so many things he didn't understand about her and her interest in him. But he understood this: without Mrs. Vance he would founder hopelessly. He touched her wet shoulder, her dress plastered against her, and drew her in thinking how the perfect world of freedom and art he'd imagined in his youth had long since given way an old world rife with struggle and compromise. Upstairs in his studio, Mozart crashed and soared as he led her to the living room, thinking how Keiko would understand, how she'd made a similar decision with Boothe.
"You'll never leave me," Mrs. Vance said. "My beautiful boy." She brought his hand to her face, the pallor of his hand matching her flesh, and they swayed together a moment, in rhythm, caught dancing as if to familiar music.