She had bumped into him quite by accident, or had he been the one to bump into her? She was unsure, only that he lacked the manners to say, “Pardon” or “Excuse me.” Being in such a rush to get where he was going, his movement was uncoordinated. Like a newborn deer: all desire, no direction. “What an uncivilized little ruffian,” she had thought, wishing she could reach out and slap him. Nothing of a harsh nature, just a light tap about the ears to remind him a lady should be treated with respect. And a Grande lady she was. She wore a dress of finest blue lace, fringed in gold lame and complimented by an impeccably stylish ensemble, the best of accessories highlighting quite proper bearing. Sun ascended, shadows retreated, the full spectacle of her garb displayed. From behind her textured attitude, she watched the busying of chalk and easel, his entirety absorbed in work. Remembering the incident of when they first bumped into one another came as an event that happened moments ago, yet it could easily have been years. Love blinds time, or so she heard him iterate during many late night bohemian socials. Coarse language and cigarillo smoke disturbed her sensibilities, yet she maintained stoic dignity, observing from a distance.
Just then, she noticed a change, an evolving. Simple tools had been the start, experimentations with cloth, crayons, clay and water colours, just as most children, but now he delved in strictly pencils and parchment. And, she felt pride in noting, he was rather good at it.
Darkening his left palm with graphite, mixing with the right thumb, clouds were shaded onto the blank page. An opened notebook sat upon easel, he on stool, occasionally glancing out the window to remember the subject’s tintings. Once enough wisps had been captured, hands deftly became a camera projecting outside images onto a paper photograph. During the hour, she saw various hues breathing immortality into the work, clean streaks of ageless color that would never weather.
He seemed ageless as well. Long black hair cascaded about strong shoulders, muscular features suggesting a welder, carpenter, laborer of a sort. She could easily imagine him lifting hay bales on a farm, hitching a team of horses to their carriage. She envisioned riding in a horse drawn wagon with him through orchards bordered by flowered fields, twilight teasing emotions out of solemn postures. In her nether regions she felt a stirring, something she couldn’t explain, and refused to give voice to. After all, she was a refined woman. Then he looked over at her. Had he sensed her daydream? He couldn’t have. Would he touch her shoulder, brush her hair?
“Margaret, relax,” he teased.
“He called my name!” her heart screamed. The giddy school girl ached to tell all her friends about an end to unrequited love, the refined woman of dignity balked at the impertinence, and the hormonally charged adult purred, “Let me show you what a woman is for.” Margaret remained silent.
“Margaret, this one is special.” Leaning toward her, one arm reached out, and she steeled herself against the inclination to swoon into his arms. Every fiber of her being wanted to express passion for him, but there was a disconnect, something missing, perhaps even inappropriate. He reached around her for a second set of pencils, and then returned to his latest “Masterpiece in the Making.”
She saw his forceful jaw line, piercing eyes of sadness, instantly thinking of DaVinci. Margaret knew this was a talented man, virile, disciplined to a fault, and (blush) strikingly handsome. She yearned to say, “Excuse me this interruption, I shall momentarily return,” taking her leave to recuperate from these flashes of heat within, but she could not. She could not bring herself to say a word to him, or to halt the sight that he afforded her. For some inexplicable reason, she felt compelled to watch, to stare, and to witness the birth of yet another marvelous creation. In the midst of touching up a street corner, he paused.
“We’ll break early today, Margaret,” he sighed to the walls. Brushing hands dry against white smock, he again faced her, smiling. “Thanks for being so patient.”
Margaret knew his name, which was prominently featured on the efficiency’s door, piled correspondence on his desk, even sewn above his smock’s breast pocket. She felt ill at ease addressing him as anything other than “Sir.”
With a hot cup of tea poured, he relaxed on the couch, crossing sandaled feet on the coffee table, and spoke again. “Only two more pieces and I’ll have the whole collection ready, m’lady. This cityscape, and the last one will be Julia.”
“I’ve always thought that a beautiful name, you know.” She hoped he would value her input, at least give her some credit. “You can do anything you put your mind to, Sir. I’ve seen you do so many styles, I don’t believe there’s anything beyond your reach.”
Sipping tea and inhaling colorful surroundings, another summation was due. “Forty nine pieces may not establish any record, but the price sure will. After this showing, it’s vacation time.” Head resting on the couch’s back, arms outstretched, he talked to the ceiling with an extended sigh. “Just you and me, Margaret, we’re finally going to get away from it all.”
Margaret pictured herself lying next to him, pawing his shirt buttons, her head nestled on his chest. She felt as if anything were now possible. He looked exhausted, although today’s all day session was in no way a record breaker for his determination of will. It was not so long ago he’d labored for weeks on getting every detail of a stellar mural precise, accurate down to the last lunar crevice. She’d witnessed him graduate from still life to landscapes and animal studies to avant garde. This year was mostly skylines and cityscapes. In the last month, though, he’d begun toying with ideas not ventured into since, well, since they first met.
“Julia,” he breathed, finally bringing attention to the most recent portrait. Rough outline showed a piano, barest sketch of a female pianist, and flowing curtains hung about the scene’s border. The royal, rich feel of the drapery’s cloth called for equally impressive foreground material. As always, the background was tackled prior to approaching the main visual focal points.
“And would you give her a full name, Sir?” she boldly inquired, wishing she had instead voiced, “Please hold me.”
Rubbing dry a sweaty brow with the back of a multicolored hand, he sat up straight, sipped more tea, then eyed Margaret. “What do you think of the name Julia Marie?” A wry smile teased his mouth’s bookend dimples.
Margaret’s chest swelled with pride, her smile beaming brighter than ever. “Marvelous.” Within her, a heartbeat audibly raced. “It has a musical quality, a very lyrical sound. Plenty of very aristocratic women have that name. I like it.”
As if struck by sudden impulse, he jumped to his feet, briskly returning to his stool. Setting his mind to task, a rectangular section of the page’s bottom was filled with Gothic lettering, “Julia Marie.” Trying to survey the studio with fresh eyes, he yearned for a muse, some titular motivation he could expound upon in fleshing out the puzzling final piece.
Margaret loved being a part of the creative process, though she longed to be more. She had put up with his mood swings, endured his experimental stages, even the darker abusive period, where he had damaged himself, and at one time, threatened damaging her. She had grown to love him in spite of himself. As he set to work, holding an antique goblet up to light, she saw sunlight sparkle in his eyes, reflecting the true artistry of his soul. In those eyes, she could see tenderness, compassion, understanding. She knew it was meant to be, that it would all work out. Perhaps the gallery exhibition would bring them closer together. She could only hope.
An intricate design within the goblet caught his imagination, which he began painstakingly tracing and recreating. The pattern became engraved shadows on the base of a brass candelabra resting atop the piano, its candles throwing diffusion throughout the scene.
He started penciling in the ebony and ivory keyboard, then several fingers of the girl’s right hand. As the skilled instrument traveled upward, fingers sprouted slender arms, graceful shoulders, a swanlike neck, and braided hair. Here, a roadblock was stumbled into. Scratching his head, thinking aloud, the pianist’s hairstyle was questioned. “Pigtails would be way too young, and I can’t have that. I know what she looks like, but I’ve got to get the hair just right.”
“I favor a high bun myself,” quipped the silent partner. “Will we see her face? If I say so myself, I think she’d be beautiful.”
“Can’t have her overshadowing the décor,” he reasoned. “She’s the focal point, but it all has to carry the right balance.” He scanned the catalogue prepared to date, taking note of each work’s strength, knowing that each made a particular statement. “Depending on the dominant subject, “ reminding himself of his own mantra. “Winter Leopard is one of my favorites,” continued the conversation of one.
“I love that one,” she interjected. “You showed great contrasts.”
“Your eye focuses on the animal, while the snow’s multiple shadings remain dominant. Julia is special, she means everything to me, and I’ve got to make Julia the leopard, not the snow.”
“I understand,” came the proof that they were of one mind.
They both stewed for a moment, then Margaret shouted, “Why not you? Make yourself dominant .”
With élan, he penciled a mirror next to the candelabra, a sliver of the pianist’s face reflected in its left side, enough to show attentiveness, the rest showing him as instructor, conductor, and tutor. He felt energized with this novel idea, completely forgetting about a glass of tea, now growing cold. Forging ahead, minutes withered into hours, until he felt the mission had been accomplished. “What do you think?” A pause of scant seconds. “Margaret?”
She did not respond. She was not angrily ignoring him, she was simply worn out. In silence, she slept as he gave her a goodnight kiss, then covered her.
“Sleep well, my love.” He turned out the lights and lay on the couch. Julia would be ready within one or two days’ time, leaving plenty to spare. Over a week remaining to play with, he was now certain Julia Marie would fittingly be the crowning achievement to his life’s work. He slept, worries of the impending exhibition drifting far away.
Dawn saw his body refreshed, though not sufficiently ready for the task, his stomach growling for nourishment. Exaggerating a stretched yawn, one nearly well intentioned “Good morning” was squeezed out to inert surroundings. After a quick slice of toast, two eggs and a fresh pot of tea, morning’s paper caught him up on events of the season. He placed the paper down as a knock on the apartment door interrupted this uncommon solitude.
Answering in stocking feet, he recognized the tall, spectacled visitor as his agent, Sterling Antonino. His friend’s graying hair and air of all-business, no-nonsense filled his thoughts with memories and inspiration for several future works. Standing before him in a crisp business suit, towing a bulging briefcase, an unburdened hand reached forward to shake. “Long time no see.”
Maintaining a firm handshake, the guest was led into the artist’s studio, where they contentedly sat, the guest occupying a wooden stool, resident comfortably reclining on the couch, nursing tea. “Care for a cup, Ster?”
“No thanks.” Briefcase positioned at his feet like a trained pup, he made clear this was not a social call. “I was just hoping we were all set for next Friday. Flyers have been posted, ads commissioned. Nervous investors make agents even more nervous. It’s been a long time without a word . . .”
Placating hand gestures and a disarming smile said more than words could have conveyed. “Yes. No worries.” Tea was placed on an end table with the reassurance. “Only two pieces to go. Still finishing my last city scene, and . . .”
“And the new one? The pianist you spoke of last month?” Rare excitement erupted through his voice and his buoyant expression.
“Yes.” His agent’s inquisitiveness was peaking, curiosity not unlike a child on Christmas morning. “All in due time. Not finished yet, but all that’s left are the facial colors.”
Sterling’s face sank, low tide beginning to highlight the creases. “Colors? Don’t tell me you’re backing out?”
“Perish the thought.” It finally occurred to him that his associate was strictly a businessman at heart, not truly familiarized with the drudgeries of an artist’s life, or intricacies of the work. “Instead of giving you a crash course in how I develop paintings out of ideas, why don’t you let me ease your conscience by introducing her to you?” The agent did not answer. He didn’t have to; a frown erasing smile and broad eyes that removed early wrinkles spoke clearly enough. It appeared that the dollar signs in his eyes were replaced by either hope, admiration or perhaps Sterling was salivating.
Standing before his latest project, he felt an explanatory introduction was necessary. “Not finished yet . . .”
Sterling clapped his hands in the form of prayer, pleading, “Oh, come on, stop stalling. Show me already.”
Its covering lifted, Sterling gasped, magnetically drawn to rise and approach. Bending forward to inspect closer, his nose all but touched the canvas. “Remarkable,” he sighed. “The room’s elegance, detail of the piano, and the girl, she looks so real, even without colors . . . “
“Julia Marie,” the artist proudly announced. “She’s very special to me.”
“Yes, I can see that,” came the agreement. “And I see you finally snuck yourself into your own work here. Do I sense shades of Dorian Gray or Hitchcock?”
They both chuckled, then Sterling asked, “This time, nothing is being held back, correct? All of these are on exhibition this time around?” Four dozen canvases of varying size were stored against the walls, only two waiting on covered easels upon the agent’s entry. “What about this one?” Using his eyeglasses as a pointer, he indicated the lone covered piece.
The artist spoke while advancing toward the frame in question. “Ah, not this one.” Petting the top edge with care, “I’ll never part with it.” Stepping behind the work, proudly removing the cover, he explained, “This one I’ve kept from every audience, even you, my friend. This is my first work as a professional. Back when I was finding my way, I had the most cluttered studio and an even more cluttered mind.”
“I can see that,” the agent confirmed, examining the mishmash of styles contributing to the background.
“I kept bumping into the easels in my studio and the ideas in my head. This was my first attempt at a nude model.” His reminiscence added, “She was a reluctant one, posing for the money, yet she had a certain refinement about her. I couldn’t bear to leave her au naturel.”
“Visitors and such? Relatives?”
“No, it just didn’t seem right. In fact, she was very dignified about the whole affair. I tried to capture that same look in the pianist’s expression.”
Examining the two works, first and latest, with this new narrated appreciation, the agent made a request. “I can see it. Yes, my word, you need to put these together, side by side. audiences will love the perspective.”
Making eye contact with his first project, he nodded with a slightly shamed disappointment, “I can’t. I made a promise. Sorry, but I hope you’ll understand.”
After studying the set expression of twin painted faces, he gave up on pressing the issue, validating the artist’s wishes. Firmly grasping his friend’s shoulder, Sterling agreed, “Yes, principles and all that. Of course,” he concurred. “You know, it would have been a big bonus, to the crowds as well as your pocket.”
“As I said, it wouldn’t be right. I’ve been trying ever since to get back to where I started, and Julia Marie is where I started.”
“The pianist? Or do you mean Mademoiselle with parasol?” The artist smiled affirmatively. “Then why is there no title?”
“Oh, forgive me. A bit dusty, isn’t it? I’ve been so caught up . . .” Taking a small cloth from his pocket to clean the nameplate, the artwork was readjusted. “There we go.”
Sterling paused, then said, “You know, I do see why you couldn’t part with her.” He looked closely once more. “Hmm, she does have a genuine quality of elegance about her. But, why not a more fancy name than Margaret?”