Marsha is around forty, bright, and not at all bad looking. On the day she was transferred to us from the Cleveland office I invited her to join me for lunch in the company cafeteria. The lunch became a daily event, and we’ve been out to dinner a few times and we’ve taken in a play.
We enjoy spending time together for a couple of reasons. First of all, she doesn’t want to talk about her past, especially the wedding ring, so that means I don’t have to talk about my own tangled webs. But more important, we are both in stages where we cannot afford to get into anything like an involvement. So we just stay available for each other, and there are no sticky commitments.
One day she said to me, “Look, Barry, I need an escort Friday. I know you aren’t too keen on the subject of art, but I have two tickets to the Jules Bruno exhibit at the Met.”
“If it’s a stack of cubes, or misplaced body parts, count me out.”
“I don’t think there will be any of that. It will be in the Whistler Room, not the Dali Room. They say they have discovered a realist, a bohemian who has been around here all the time, but this is the first time his work is being shown. The local arts klatch is all excited. He’ll be at the showing. And they’re serving wine and cheese.”
“Cheese, yes, but no to the wine.”
“I knew you’d say that. So I am taking a cooler of beer!”
And of course I went, even knowing what was in store: posh, high-tone, arty, with elite and near-elite and elite pretenders all set to gush over an unknown local artist who had been “discovered” right there under their noses, found by a few knobs who saw originality, surely, and genius, possibly.
A crowd of the usual types was milling about and rubbing elbows in a lobby. I looked over a brochure of the exhibit, a tract that gave miniature replications of the paintings on display. I quickly noted that the exhibit contained some nudes, and this brightened me a bit.
A consensus was sounded and we wandered en masse into the Whistler Room. Some four-dozen paintings ranging in sizes from miniature to life-sized were hanging on a vast wall. Two men were seated on a podium. One looked like a banker who would just naturally belong to an art movement, the other a large, muscular, red-faced fellow in his thirties who looked uncomfortable in a suit that was a bit tight over his torso.
I didn’t hear the words of the ordained critic as he gave the introductory praises of the artist because several of the paintings had put me into a tailspin. I got up and walked out.
Marsha found me sitting in the lobby. I was minutely studying the brochure of the exhibit.
“Barry, you turned white as a sheet.”
She disappeared for a moment and returned with a beer for me.
“Maybe this will help. Can you tell me what upset you? Was it somebody in there?”
“There is somebody in there who figures into this, but, no, it wasn’t a somebody. It was the damned paintings!”
“I don’t understand. They are provocative, surely, and some of them are stark. But there was nothing of the Modernist slant, so I wouldn’t have expected this kind of reaction! And from you, who isn’t, after all, an aficionado…”
“Marsha, you know I’ve been married twice, don’t you?”
“Let me tell you about my second marriage.”’
Like me, Ruby had been married before, and burned. But we were sure that this time was different, so closely alike were we in tastes and temperament. She was intelligent and damned good looking, and a lot of fun.
We were serious, dead serious, both limiting ourselves to nine-to-five gigs so we’d have evenings free for homemaking and the delightful fellowship we were sure would grow as we spent time together.
We decided we wanted a house rather than an apartment or townhouse. And Ruby wanted a picture window – she liked to strip down and dance as she watched herself lightly reflected in the glass. But a down payment on a house was a push for me – my first wife had wiped me out and I had not had time to rebuild my reserves. And Ruby couldn’t help.
So this little bungalow in the boon docks seemed like a gift. It had been on the market for so long the price had dropped twice, mainly because the location was far from ideal. But we both liked the unusual panorama of the place, and since we both had cars we overlooked that objection. With a small second mortgage, I was able to close a deal.
The house needed some work, but we relished doing this ourselves. I did call in people for electric work and plumbing, but the carpentry and painting we did ourselves, sometimes with the help of friends from work who came for a repair party. They helped us name our home Reverie.
The panorama I spoke of? The narrow north-south road passed between hills that were two miles long. A quarter-of-a-mile past our house the road came to a dead end – a ferry across the river had docked there many years ago, but by then there was only a barricade. A walk down to the river was a scenic delight.
Our bungalow was on the eastern hill. Two overgrown lots on each side separated us from the nearest houses. We’d park our cars just off the road and then climb some thirty feet up stone steps to the small front porch. The place was small – two bedrooms, living room, den and kitchen – but quite pleasant.
We never knew any of our neighbors more than slightly – getting to our house from theirs was too much trouble. And this suited us just fine – she wanted the picture window to herself.
Now, the other side of the road was a different kettle of fish.
In times past when the road was busy with traffic to and from the ferry, someone had put a motel there – actually this was so long ago they were called tourist homes. Some twenty little cabins were spaced in reasonable order on leveled plots on the hill. A curved, single-lane driveway gave easy access.
Some of the cabins were well kept, and some weren’t. But virtually all of them were occupied by a mixture of inhabitants: families with children, blue-collar couples, flower children, and, I suppose, some working girls.
This scene, which was just across the road from us, in no way upset us. Indeed, Ruby and I often sat on our front porch and watched the melting pot through our sunshades. We watched kids playing tag, men lobbing a football, families roasting wieners, checkers games, and even some early stages of sexual hanky-panky. We saw sheriff’s deputies make arrests or intercede in domestic disputes, and we saw more than one fight. And these were not limited to men.
We never got any closer to this scene than the two hundred yards distance from our porch. But we gave names to some of those we saw regularly. Like one couple we called Ralph and Alice after the Honeymooners. And a little boy we named Speedy Gonzales.
Two fellows with folding canvas stools called for special attention. One we called Moustache Pete. About an hour before dark every day he would walk over to a knoll a good distance away from the compound to sit on his stool and play his accordion. We could scarcely hear what he played, though the little bits and pieces we heard suggested it was most disagreeable. But we had to admire the way he passionately swayed and shut his eyes and seemed to have a hell of a good time.
The other we named Earnest Hemingway. I suppose he did resemble Hemingway – stocky, rough looking, bearded. On a negative note, with his shaggy hair and shabby clothes, he looked unclean from our distance. He carried a steno pad, and he’d sit and scribble on it, sometimes for hours. And he had what appeared to be two very expensive cameras. He emerged at odd times, and we never saw him speak to anyone. We saw him on the stoop of his cabin taking in the crowd. Several times we saw him at the barricade by the river. And one morning he was sitting on the stone steps that led to our house, staring at his home across the street, his cameras beside him.
Marsha had been following my narrative closely. “But you are no longer with Ruby?”
“No, she left after a little more than a year.”
“Too much Reverie?”
“Not exactly. We had an active sex life – she was ready anytime! However, this readiness was not limited to Reverie: there were guys in her office, a salesman who sold her a car, and even the husbands of a couple of our friends.”
“Did you keep the house?”
“Well, yes I did. But the powers-that-be decided to run a by-pass through there, so the whole area was condemned. They paid pretty well, but, of course, Ruby got a share.”
”Well, Barry, let’s get back to the business of the Bruno exhibit. I’m guessing that this display somehow triggered some nostalgia about your time in Reverie.”
“That’s understatement, Marsha. Those paintings are Reverie!”
“You’re trying to tell me the artist called Jules Bruno is really your Hemingway?”
“Cleaned up and in more presentable clothes, but yes, that’s our Hemingway! He wasn’t writing on that pad; he was drawing, sketching. And using the cameras as an aid…”
“It doesn’t make sense that he’s your man, Barry. Did you ever see him with an easel?”
“No, but he could have taken his drawings and his snapshots into that little hovel he lived in, where he could paint in private.”
“Really, now, that’s a stretch. I think you are mistaken.”
“No mistake, Marsha.”
I opened the brochure and found his sketch of a sunset over a stream.
“Now, you could argue that this is a generic view of a sunset. But to me, there are too many features that convince me that this was the river beyond the barricade. But here’s a better case…”
I flipped to his painting of the motel complex that had been across the street from Reverie.
Again, she demurred. “It looks like any Skid Row, or maybe a migrant camp. This scene could have been anywhere. You haven’t convinced me, Barry.”
“Ah, but wait!”
I pointed to a somewhat wavy patch in the left-hand corner of the motel scene. “See? It’s small, but you see a man there. See the moustache? And the accordion! Marsha, that’s Moustache Pete! And if you’re still not convinced, try this…”
I pointed to one of the nudes in the exhibit.
“Who do you think this is?”
She gasped. “Ruby?”
“The face is a little distorted, but that’s unmistakably her bosom! And you get the idea he is seeing her through a window…”
“But Ruby? How did he…”
“Apparently, he did some of his field work at night. And he found a free model in a picture window…Convinced now?”
“Yes, I give up. And Hemingway’s next book can be ‘The Importance of Painting Earnest’!”