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Fall 1997, Volume 14.3

Fiction

 

Blair T. Birmelin

Portrait


Blair T. Birmelin (B.A. Smith College, B.F.A., Yale U.) has published two novels, along with art and literary criticism in
The Nation, The Literary Review, Art in America and others.

"Beautiful," he said.

—not his voice that was intrusive, no, but his camera, which was becoming his face—she saw it so, saw him so—an animal dressed in human clothes, the lens his nose, like a pig's snout, gleaming wet. She shut her eyes at that and cursed her fearfulness, her penchant for seeing things in things.

"Beautiful," he said again, and there were two of his fingers in palpable benediction, lightly tracing the contours of her face. My old face, she thought, as one would think: my old neighborhood. Her courage was coming back. In a moment she opened her eyes and saw him backing off, murmuring, "beautiful, beautiful," the word a mere vocable, meaningless—his signature call so to speak.

He was thin and of medium height, not handsome but very attractive. Except when he moved, she thought. Hard to tell why—a certain slackness? It wasn't absolute clumsiness, more a lack; dumb where clever was promised. Yet motionless, he was a looker, a "real looker." She rolled the expression out under her breath, liking the confusion of gender it seemed to imply. She thought only a man would say it, and only of a woman.

He stood in front of her like a statue—art deco if he would cut his hair; and she began to calculate how, with a single pose, she might go about catching not that rudderless beauty, but the dumbness that wasn't quite dumbness. Like an unwashed, unaware boy, she thought, he's probably prettiest when asleep. But she had rejected pretty, so the problem of a pose remained. Now, as if to foil her, he sat motionless on a wooden stool, leaning forward, his face some five feet from hers, looking through his camera.

"Close your eyes," he said hoarsely. She did and heard a whirring noise followed by the click of the shutter, then nothing until she caught his breathing, the light intake of air through his nose. In her blindness, she felt the pressure of the cushion on the back of her head, and conjured up the blank back of her skull, as unlikely as the dark side of the moon; yet she saw it, she actually saw it with its bun of yellowed hair and the scalp peeking though. The image reminded her of a postcard someone had once sent her of Grant Wood's American Gothic, in which the old couple are seen from the back. Then she thought of those back views by Magritte and Delvaux: anonymous, black-suited men with their bowler hats and their dark hair cropped high on their napes—cogs in some New Age machine. Back views of women were something else. Unless they were as old as she was. Maybe she should have stipulated that he take only the back of her head, that he

"You're hiding from me," he whispered so close to her ear that she jumped, feeling the lens bore into her like a dentist's drill.

"But I have eyes," she said and opened them. "You just have that damn glassy pig's snout." Her laugh was weak, an exhalation that brought him still closer.

"Cher maitre. Maitresse." He giggled. By the clear even light of the studio window, she saw his jaw working; the tiny muscles twitched almost imperceptibly. Of course he's under pressure, she thought; he's working, this is his job. But if she meant herself to feel some sympathy for him, she didn't succeed.

"You can't know," he began. Then the clicking started again. He didn't say what it was she could not know. She studied his skin meanwhile. It was pale and delicately scarred, unshaven—she had made out the colorless glint of stubble. American adolescence, she thought; the traitor within the gates, revolution in the palace. And she closed her eyes, of her own accord this time, and thought of the adolescent boys she had painted over the years and how their age undid them. Yet he was quite a few birthdays past that. On him, adolescence seemed to have been institutionalized, even to its look of innocent brutishness, like the face of a young killer-for-hire

"I know a thing or two about faces," she said aloud. Blind, she was conscious of her lips moving as if through a mask. When his affirmative came, though, she wondered if she might have made the same comment a few minutes back—repeated herself, in short. The prerogative of old age, she thought. Elvira, who came in every day but Sunday when Shamir came, told her she talked to herself all the time. Well, damn it, of course she did. "I'm the most interesting conversationalist I know," she had said. The truth was that she had always talked to herself, but never anywhere but here in her own place. As if this homeground and the space of her mind were one and words said in one were words said in the other. That was the only way she could explain it "I've looked at a lot of faces in my time," she said.

"Really." No incredulity; he was simply agreeing, but his tone seemed to reduce her claim to inconsequence. She thought, but if he doesn't know how many faces I've looked at, he won't catch the humor in my saying it. Indeed, the curve of his lips wasn't indicating a smile so much as a refusal to speak, a concealing—of what? she wondered. A hunger? Or was it the reverse of hunger—a spewing out, a holding forth kept carefully hidden?

Yet when he began to talk, it could hardly be called gushing. She heard it as much more careful than that, and put it to herself that his words were a caress, that he talked the way people use their hands. He was saying how thrilled he'd been when Sidney had called yesterday to tell him she had finally agreed to his taking some pictures. "Because I've been an admirer of your work for years, absolutely years."

"Years," she murmured, thinking the irony of that could hardly have escaped him. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-two," he answered promptly. "I believe the first painting I ever saw of yours was at the Whitney—a woman and a baby."

"My daughter and grand-daughter," she said, thinking it odd that he had said woman and baby, like cat and dog, or fish and fowl—two separate categories and not one.

"I knew they were related to you," he said. "I didn't know anything about you then, but I was absolutely positive they were relatives." The camera dangled from the strap around his neck, its black lens glinting. His eyes, which were a pale blue, seemed to look inward, or at least not at her

"Relatives," she muttered. Her daughter was dead, and her granddaughter was nineteen. She closed her eyes automatically because she could not endure thinking of her daughter's death. Quickly she willed her mind to something else, first to Elvira, who was near the age her daughter would have been, and then to her daughter's ex-husband Arthur. He had been remarried for many years, but still came to see her from time to time. She frequently used the thought of Arthur as a bridge from her daughter's death back to life ongoing; and by the same token, and not unpleasantly, any thought of Arthur held something of her daughter in it, but disguised and without the sting.

It wasn't the click of the shutter that broke through, but his talknot his words but his tone, which was affected in the way a child's voice sometimes pretends pleasure it doesn't feel. He was going on about faces, about pictures of faces and how he had always been interested in them. "Pictures, I mean. I thought Jackie Onassis's face was so terrific. When I was a kid, I cut out pictures of her. I had this huge collection. Well, not just of her, but there were a lot of her—more than of anyone. Of course she was Jackie O by the time I knew anything about her, but my mother could never get over her remarrying. She actually hated her for it. Isn't that darling? For her, being Catholic and all, it was the Kennedys all the way. I guess she thought Jackie should have become a nun or something. Anyway, there were tons of Jackie pictures around when I was growing up; she was in the news all the time—great zoom lens shots taken when she wasn't expecting it. Those eyes of hers. I mean, she could have been from Mars. There was room for a third eye in between. When I got famous, all I could think about was taking her. Like it was an obsession, and I would tell people about it, and ask famous people who knew her to try and set it up for me, you know. And then I met her at this party in London—would you believe I have forgotten who gave it? So she was there, wearing this little black dress—like they say that women over a certain age shouldn't wear black dresses, but she didn't look too bad. I told her that her face was wonderful, that it had meant a lot to me. But when I was standing there saying that, you know, and actually looking at her, it was just." He shook his head. "Like nothing came to me.

There was a commemorative silence, which she broke: "You do celebrities," she said. "I'm not that."

"Celebrities are the people who want to see themselves," he said. "Who else would want to? They want to see themselves as others see them. They get off on that."

"Well, it's something I don't care about," she said "These pictures aren't for me.

He stood up as though he were through with his job. "You're finished?" she asked. She felt dismissed. "I can turn," she added.

He said he didn't want to tire her.

"I'm fine," she said.

"Today I'm taking straight on," he explained. "I mean, if I started shooting angles, I'd have a different face "

She watched him raise the camera and she head the click, but his movements looked desultory. "Close your eyes," he said. "I want you like asleep."

Like dead, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to contemplate being dead, but could not reconcile herself to it.

"You're beautiful," he said. "You don't look eighty-seven."

What was beautiful? Eighty-two? Seventy-five? "I'm eighty-eight," she said. She opened her eyes

"I couldn't believe it when Sidney called and said you were interested. I just dropped everything."

She couldn't tell if he meant it or not. His eyes were flat, their expression diffident, maybe even a little frightened "What were you doing when he called?" she asked.

"Well, actually I was in bed." He laughed, and she thought, he wants me to ask him with whom, but I don't care. "I get up early," she said. "I've done that for years. There's something about the mind early in the morning, straight out of sleep"

"You work then?"

The question was an intrusion, and she did not answer. There were three paintings inside the cubicle that served her as a bedroom; she had asked Elvira to turn them to the wall. She recalled the last mark she had made on each. On the portrait of her ex-son-in-law it had been the toe of the shoe, blue and black, stumbled. The once glossy pigment had dulled. Black can look horrible, she thought. She had exaggerated the hump of the toe: a retired professor's shoe, a clown's shoe. Sometimes she thought of Arthur not as her daughter's ex-husband but her own, the sort of man she, too, would have divorced—a kind, soft, stubborn man. Presumably he had reflexes, and as a professor of biophysics, he must have had ideas, but there was nothing in between—no emotions, nothing to disturb the even kindliness he showed to the world. This knowing that she, too, would have divorced him gave her back a token self-esteem that she had lost many years before when her husband had left her. "You are impossible," her husband had said. That was all. Then he had left. She understood now what he had meant—that she was disagreeable, needy, argumentative, craven, controlling, and as a result of all those things, unkind. All reasons to be left. But I'm strong, she thought, and I was strong then, too. Her work was a sign of that, the whole body of it, the family of it; the paintings were like children she had loved and supported—unlike Judith. She had experienced Judith mainly as a disturbance, a cause for alarm and upset, and now—never mind now. Well, of course I love Judith, she thought, aware with a resigned exhaustion that if her love was contingent on her daughter's untimely death, then goddamn it, that was the way it had to bea bitter love but love for all that.

"You probably don't think of your photos as your children, do you?" She reasoned that the edge of resentment in her voice was because he had not her tragedy to bear.

He leaned down with a look of incomprehension, and she repeated her question. "But I don't think of them as mine," he said. "They don't belong to me. Like I'm here and I'm waiting around with the camera and"

"Your camera." She would not have him evade all responsibility. But he didn't bother finishing his explanation, only asked her if she had any works-in-progress he might see

"Give him a drawing or something," Sidney had said, but she'd be damned if she was going to let him past her face. The night before, she'd told Elvira to set her chair up against the blank wall, and when he had arrived, she'd been in it. "All the pictures of me you want," she had said, "but none of my studio." Her caution had an old analogue: in her younger days she had slept around but never here. She had never brought any of them home. She didn't like people using her bathroom or putting their feet on the rag rug by her bed. "Whatever," he had agreed, and he'd pulled up her wooden stool and sat on it. "You don't mind?" he had said

She wasn't going to mind a thing as long as he left her space alone.

"if you have something to show me," he was saying. "Any works-in-progress. I've always loved your stuff."

"No," she said. "I don't." Works-in-progress, indeed! What the hell would he know about a work in progress when all he did was to look through a hole and find what was already there? "Bet you don't even develop your own pictures," she said.

"I don't, no. I don't send them off to Kodak, though." He giggled. "My god."

"Photography is exploitation," she said. But her voice was so frail and breathy that she heard a note of apology in it. "It adds nothing to the world," she said firmly. "It simply takes away."

He considered this. "And what am I taking from you?"

"My picture."

"Really." That word, like a twitch, a giggle, a sign of agreement over meaningless things. Did he have any idea how many times in the course of her long life she had drawn her own face, had felt the hand holding pencil to page engage the plastic fact of her own flesh? Did he know what kind of objectivity that required? Drawing is an act of replenishment, she thought. She was sure that over all those years she had given more than she had taken.

"All you're going to get," she said scornfully, "is the way I look." She could not triumph though; how she looked was what she wantedto see herself, not to know herself. She was tired of knowing

"The way you lookthat is so wise," he said. "Because photography is definitely an impersonal thing. I mean, there is this thing about a photograph that everybody can relate to. It identifies you. By the very fact of being photographed, a person is raised upyou know, raised out of anonymity. Today, what everyone wants more than anything is not to be anonymous." He smiled. "I'm the archangel." And in the face of her silence, he added. "So tell me about your life.

She hesitated, then began: "I was born in 1899"

"Oh, my god, that just strikes me," he said.

"Yes," she said.

"And you came to New York like all the rest of us, I suppose." "I moved here when I was twenty. I had gone to Cornell for three years, but I didn't stay to graduate "

"And you always wanted to be an artist?"

"I was an artist," she said stiffly. "I enrolled at the League"

"She thought of going through it all for him step by step, but repetition had made it stale.

"Well, I just love your work," he said again, his face obscured now by the camera. "I mean it."

She nodded, exhausted by the idea of his even looking at her paintings, let alone liking them. "I don't care what people think of my work," she whispered. But that wasn't it exactly; more that she wanted nothing to do with posterity. I'm beyond that," she added, sounding arrogant to herself but not knowing how else to put it.

But he was saying she would care if people didn't like her work. "They wouldn't buy, and you wouldn't be famous."

"I'm hardly a household word"

He waved away her objection, adding that he didn't photograph anyone who wasn't famous; it would be a waste of his time. And beyond the fatuity of this statement, she could make out what was for him a necessary working condition, as good light was for her.

"I've always felt more comfortable painting ordinary people," she said, "because I have to know something about them—not a lot but something. Fame gets in the way. It dictates what you can know."

"For me, if they aren't celebrities, they're just faces," he explained. "Anonymous. I can't relate to faces "

She wouldn't be sarcastic. He was here, posterity's bell—weather, at her invitation—or Sidney's, she couldn't remember which. "You asked me at least a month ago," Sidney had said over the phone. "I swear it. You said you wanted me to find someone to take your picture. And now that I have someone really special—I mean, he's dying to do you" Was that how it had been? Surely Sidney had mentioned this man before, had put the idea of being photographed into her head in the first place; or else why would she have thought of it?

Sidney assured her he had a real sense of style. "Style," she scoffed. "I'm a sick old woman " "Then be a stylish sick old woman," he had come back at her. She told herself she would do it for Sidney, who as dealers went, wasn't a bad sort. But the prospect had so excited her that she couldn't sleep, and she woke that morning more tired than she had been when she'd gone to bed.

"What do you want me to do now?" she said

The answer was the same. "Close your eyes."

That day last month—whatever day it had been that she had called Sidney—she'd been sure she was dying and had wanted to tell someone. She was afraid Elvira would panic, though, and send her off to a hospital, so she had phoned Sidney instead and said she had finally agreed to have her picture taken. That, as far as she could remember, was the way it had happened. Then she had called Arthur. He wasn't there, but his wife said he'd be in touch. He had come over the next day. "Sorry it's been so long," he said. "What's happening with my painting?"

"I'm going to will it to you," she had said, "and you can finish it to suit yourself." That had been as far as she had gone in making her condition understood. Anything more would have seemed indelicate

I'm still here, she thought now. Shadows passed across her closed lids, moving like people in a lit room behind drawn shades. And the clicking continued in a gentle, irregular rhythm. There were times she could have sworn he was off to one side, despite his insistence on front face. "Three quarters is my best angle," she murmured, though she kept her head steady and was rewarded for her effort by a warmth that spread slowly over her face, as if he, or maybe his camera, were the sun.

Later she asked him what his pictures were for. She meant for magazines or for framing.

"For?" he said, not seeming to understand her. "I don't know. What are your paintings for?"

At that, she felt a momentary thrill of indignation.

"I don't think pictures," he said. "I think process—the whole activity of living, of seeing. Like sometimes I have a camera in front of my eye and sometimes I don't. It doesn't make any difference. I mean, if scrambled eggs or funny hats were the result, that would be fine. Not that I don't love pictures," he added. "Because I absolutely love all pictures—yours, mine, everybody's. Pictures are absolutely the most important thing in the world."

But pictures, she thought disgustedly, are not all the same. Eyes still closed, she tried to see herself as she would appear in the shot he was about to takea face magically cut out of time, and beyond change and beyond blame, too. A self-justifying face. "In this land of milk and honey" she began, but could not finish her own thought

It had been a long time since she had heard the shutter click, so she opened her eyes. "I thought maybe you were finished," she said

"No. If you're not tired"

"I am," she said. He stayed, though.

"You can close your eyes," he said after a while. She did, wondering what he saw in her unseeing face. The outside, she thought, only the outside, and let her head fall back against the cushion. He'll tell people I gave him my last moments, she thought. And in the eye of her mind she saw her own inert hand sliding off her lap, nearly imperceptibly at first, then faster, and the other hand doing the same, until both fore

 

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