Three Tables Down
The hour was almost over. "I've never painted before," Helen said as she eyed the model and tentatively sketched with her number 2 pencil.
The woman beside her continued to paint on her own canvas but arched her eyebrow. "Never," she asked?
"No," Helen replied. "I like to draw. Uhm, I'm retired, extra time and I just thought, you know for something to do. Pretty quiet at home. Well, I thought I would give art class a try."
After a long silence while the other woman concentrated on her work she replied, "you know, this isn't a beginners class. It's actually quite advanced."
"Oh dear. I mean I couldn't believe there was a live model. Oh dear."
"It's quite preferable to the dead ones."
Helen looked at her, set her brush down and looked around. "Oh," she smiled, "that was funny." She shifted in her chair.
The room was plain. A small classroom in the art department at the junior college in Waukesha. The walls were pale. The floor scratched and drab. She looked at the beautiful colors slowly forming on the canvas next to her.
"Oh dear," she muttered. Helen bent and picked up her canvass art bag. She sighed and started to pick up her new dollar store paint brushes and pack them in. She shifted in her chair. She looked at the model and at the morose teacher picking his nails on the tall stool in the corner. She stood, tentatively and brushed down the pleats in her wool skirt. She turned to leave.
"Leaving a little early?"
"A little. I've got a, ah, well you know."
"You will be back next week? You promise, don't you," the woman beside her asked?
Helen bent towards her. "Do you really think I should?"
"I do. Your pencil sketch, well I could say, intriguing."
"Intriguing? That's such a nice word."
"I will see you next week then?"
"I guess." Helen looked around. She felt as though everyone in the room were staring at her, but they were all hunched over their paintings.
She stood there awhile longer, in place slowly batting her small canvass art bag against her thigh and then turned and left.
The next Tuesday night she arrived early and opened the door and walked slowly to her place. She noticed that the woman she had talked to last week was there early as well. Helen stopped inside the door and watched the woman meticulously set up her work area. Her art bag and brushes looked so professional compared to her own. Helen walked the rest of the way to her area and sat down.
"I'm glad you came back," the woman said, "I hope I wasn't impolite last week. I like to make small talk when I paint. It helps me relax." She looked at Helen, smiled, "It releases my creativity."
"I can see that," Helen replied. "Your so good."
"I'm Beth pleased to meet you."
"Hi Beth. Helen. I have to tell you. I shouldn't be here."
"The reason I had hoped you would stay is that I noticed that you penciled in quite elaborately, I must say that it's beautiful."
"Gosh. Thank you. I don't really paint I have just done the pencils, but, I know it's probably very naïve of me, but I thought that if I did pencil it well then I could just fill in the colors."
Beth smiled, "its typically not that simple, but the way to learn is to see your idea through, and then if you like it you can go back and take some beginners classes."
The model walked in. The long sheet she used to drape over her shoulder dragged along the floor. She was followed closely by the instructor. He was a thin man with a goatee and dressed entirely in black. As the model sat and got into position he adjusted the sheet a little and then turned to the class as if he were to say something. He didn't. He barely shook his head and then went to sit on his stool in the corner.
"Well then," Beth said, "that's the professors way of saying start your engines."
Helen covered her mouth with her hand and quiet laughter tinkled between her fingers. She looked at Beth as she started to paint and smiled to herself lowering her eyes before picking up her brush.
They worked in silence for sometime. Helen let out a deep breath and looked around the room. There were only six painters in the room. All older woman. She looked at Beth and then back to her own canvass and smiled again. She started to paint.
After a long silence Beth asked, "so what do you do Helen? What is your story?"
Helen turned to Beth and looked at her. Beth's paint strokes were slow and flowing as though she was painting to the rhythm's of some beautiful music. She watched and replied, "Oh I'm retired. I was a teacher, but I have been retired for about , uhm I don't know eight years already. No story, I guess."
"Are you married?"
"Oh, uhm, no. I never really had time to get married," she paused, "but I did see a man for over twenty years, a friend, but he died, well it's been fifteen years ago by now. Ben. Ben."
"I guess that's just like being married," she said. Without taking her eyes off of her canvass or even interrupting her strokes she added, "you don't have to look at me while we talk. Paint."
Helen nodded in agreement but didn't turn from Beth.
"Now me," Beth said, "I'm married. Forty two years. Frank. Biggest asshole on the planet. Let me think maybe the solar system."
"Not to worry I've filled my life in very nicely." She paused and looked at the model and then went back to painting. Helen finally realized that she had indeed stopped painting. Slightly startled she turned and glanced at the model. She picked up the brush, used her forearm to mop her brow and started to paint.
After a moment Helen glanced at Beth's painting and saw the colors, felt the rhythm of her brush strokes. She started to paint and talk. "So why don't you leave him?"
"I have no where to go and he knows it. I stayed home and took care of the kids while he worked. Now the kids are gone, living in Texas and he has all the money."
"Your kids are in Texas? It's so far."
"They could legitimately escape him. God bless them."
"It's not as bad as it sounds. He's away most of the day . The boys, and as he's gotten older he has the habit of drinking himself to sleep. He starts that at about eleven a.m. He used to be a mean drunk. Now he's a drunk, drunk. So I have my art and a few girlfriends I meet for coffee or cards. If you think about it our lives aren't that different. Your alone. I'm alone."
"You know I've lived like this for so long, well it's not as if I think about it much. I do miss my fourth grade class terribly."
"I get lonely. I need to have some connection to a man. After all I'm a woman. I'm only 61 years old."
"By today's standards that's not old at all." She turned and looked at Helen. It was the kindest expression on another human who wasn't a child that she had ever seen. "We're babies."
Helen stopped painting and looked at Beth. "You know I have to say that being with Ben was very nice. We would meet for coffee or dinner. Sometimes, on Sundays he would take me to brunch up at the Silver Spring Golf Club. We talked about our reading. Ben was a reader. He taught English at a private school in Brookfield. He was 15 years older than me."
"Did you have sex?"
"Oh dear. That hour went fast. I better get going."
The model stood and yawned and pulled the sheet around herself so that she was fully covered from skinny neck to toe and ambled out.
The professor stood up and followed her out.
Helen stood quickly and packed her brushes. "I'll see you next week Beth. Ah, have a good week," she added as she hurried from the room.
At home the week was going agonizingly slow for Helen. She looked around her house and realized that it hadn't changed much at all in the thirty some years she had lived there. It hadn't mattered much . She hadn't had company for a long time. The walls that were paneled were dark. The walls that were painted were in the same dark colors. The shag carpeting was plush and just like new. Her kitchen, bright yellow with a thirty year old table and chairs, all just like new. She sat at the table sipping coffee and looking at the pictures of Ben. She picked up her coffee and walked to the picture window in the living room. She looked at her neighborhood. Helen thought of all the years and all of the different people that had come and gone. Her house was on a cull du sac the second one from the house that sat perpendicular to the main entrance street. She could see, from her window that house and the three or four next to it, in addition to the one or two houses to her right.
The first house to her left had been the home of a young teacher and her husband for the first fifteen years she had been there. They had kids and dogs and she remembered with a smile how the kids would be at her door all summer for cookies and milk. Their dog "Hairy" would sit on her porch on hot afternoons because at his own house the porch was in the sun all day while Helen's offered shade. They visited and she was invited to barbecues. Eventually they moved to buy a bigger house to fit their growing family. New owners came and went, and now an older couple lived there and there was barely any activity at all.
The other houses on the cul da sac were basically the same story. Jim and Margery had been nice. Very friendly but retired and moved to Florida. They sold the house to their son. He was married to an African American woman and they had a baby but kept to themselves.
The next house was the smallest and therefore the cheapest house on the block. The Spencer's were there for twenty some years. He was a boat captain for a large tour boat in the Milwaukee harbor. When he died Darlene couldn't or didn't want to handle the upkeep on the house and she moved to an apartment. Since then no one seemed to keep the house more than a year or two. Up and down the street it was the same story.
Helen could barely sleep Monday night in anticipation of her class and a chance to visit with Beth again, but Beth wasn't there on Tuesday night. She kept looking back at the door. Helen's painting was lackadaisical and slow. The class seemed to go on forever and the next week of waiting was even worse.
The next Tuesday she sat waiting and just as class was starting Beth walked in and with a bright smile sat down next to Helen.
"You missed last week," Helen said.
"I did," Beth returned. "I seldom miss a class."
They settled in. The skinny professor walked in followed by the bored model. She sat down. They took out their brushes and started to paint. The professor casually brushed a hair from the young models eyes. She glanced at him.
"Is that a bruise by your left eye," Helen asked as they began to paint.
"I bumped into a door," she replied.
"Remember what we were talking about."
"Sex, you asked me if Ben and I had sex?"
"You thought I was going to forget my question."
"I did think you would. Uhm, forget."
Helen set her brush down and looked at Beth. "We didn't. He, Ben wasn't able, but, we did sleep together and hold each other. Do you know what I mean.?"
Beth set her brush down and thought. "You know I think I do. I think that's as good or better maybe even than having the actual sex. It's so messy in old age anyway. You can imagine."
Helen looked at the front of the room and then back to Beth. "I would think so, yes," she said.
They both started to paint again. "So, do you still have sex," Helen whispered towards Beth her eyes not leaving her canvas.
"Let me see. How would I put this," Beth pondered? "Sometimes but most of the time I would say it's a little more like you and Ben, but not with my husband."
Helen looked at Beth intently and then hunched her shoulders as a shiver ran through her entire body. "Not with your husband," she whispered as she turned to face Beth?
"Remember to keep painting, Helen or you'll never get that done," Beth returned with a smile as she continued to paint.
Helen picked up her brush and returned to her painting. She noticed absently that she liked how the colors were filling in. "Well, who then?"
"Many different men, and to many different degrees. Flirtations."
"You see I don't have a boyfriend but I flirt with every man I meet. Some of them are nothing more than a one time thing that gets no response sometimes I meet someone for coffee. A little foot play."
Beth laughed, "You've never heard of foot play? You are having coffee and you make sure your foot or leg rests against his. Believe me men know what your doing when your flirting. They have a radar for it. Sometimes it goes farther than that."
"Does your husband know."
"Are you kidding? Of course not. I'm sure if he knew he would beat me, but he's either gone or drunk and he has no idea how I am. Helen, it's really fun."
"Where do you find these men?"
"Why Helen there all over. Coffee shops, the library, the grocery store. There everywhere."
Helen did not respond but continued to paint. She got up and walked to the paint table and took the pallet knife and dabbed some more colors on to her pallet. She glanced at the professor in the corner and then back at Beth who was hidden behind her canvas. Then she looked back at the professor who was hunched over busily picking his fingers and noticed for the first time that his eyes never left the young model. She had to be thirty years younger than him. How could he have a finger left she wondered. He looked up. He was not a handsome man she observed. He was gaunt. Their eyes met. The corner of his lip turned up into a barely observable smile. Helen looked down and hurried back to her chair.
She settled down into her chair, took a deep breath and began to paint.
"When I paint I back fill the bold colors. I let them get softer and they back up the true lines. When you fill in the rest of your pencil drawing think of blending the colors. Just think if you look at my face there are no lines. Just blends. Just things that blend together. No lines.
Helen looked at her painting and saw what Beth meant. She still saw the outline through the paint. She had to blend, soften the edges. Get what she could out of it.
The professor stood. He glanced towards Helen. She looked up and caught his eye. He walked to the model and touched her shoulder. She stood. The sheet blurred and shifted as she casually brought it up around her shoulders. She glanced at the professor and they left.
"I know there is only one more class."
"Do you think we could take more classes together? Maybe, well I don't know. Maybe you could come over for coffee or a, you know, a lunch?"
"Helen, your so kind."
She was there a half hour before the last class and watched from a bench as a janitor shuffled to the door and unlocked it. She watched as the top of the hour came. She watched everyone walk in including the professor and the model. Beth was not there. Helen sat and stared at her canvas for the entire hour. Finally the professor stood. He walked over to the model. He looked at her and turned to face the students.
"Take your canvas. Finish at home. Next class starts Feb 10th. Look it up in your guides." He turned and helped the model adjust the sheet and they walked out. The students made a little small talk but Helen just sat there looking at her canvas. The class had been empty for some time and finally she stood up and left leaving her canvas next to Beth's.
Her twenty year old Ford started on the first try. The car was like brand new. She sat there, in the car both hands gripped tightly to the wheel and cried. After a moment she reached in the glove box and pulled out the box of Kleenex that was always there. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
On her way home she glanced at the Kentucky Fried chicken store two blocks from her house. How many times had she driven by that store in the last thirty years. She pulled in.
"I'll have the two piece chicken with just the biscuit.."
"Here," she said.
"Anything to drink?"
She carried her dinner to a corner table. Snow was starting to fall. They were big flakes, like giant doilies falling from the sky.
Helen sighed and picked up a chicken wing. Before taking a bite she looked up and just caught the eye of the older gentleman sitting three tables down.