Just Off Canal by Jessica Lott
The first time I met the great Abstract Expressionist painter David Carpenter he told me, “You have a rubbery face, similar to a thigh,” and then, probably because I seemed offended, “A young woman’s thigh, not one of my own.” He’d just turned ninety the week before. We were in his cavernous Tribeca loft studio—he had on some sort of bordello-style silk nightdress from which his arms protruded, welcomingly, pterodactyl-like. Behind him, a ten-year old in a newsboy cap sat in the window smoking a cigarette and looking pensive. This was Billy, the “errand boy.” I appeared to be a “cautious, trusty fellow.” “Did I have a vehicular license?” I was wearing the tie I’d bought for graduation, clutching my Pratt portfolio, and mentally calculating my competition. I’d heard he needed someone down at the corner store we both went to. We were neighbors. I lived on the Chinatown side, in a 5th floor walkup with five other dudes, most of them art students. Carpenter shook my hand. I was hired.
“I’ll probably just be stretching canvas,” I said. But everyone knew I’d hit it. This was my icon. I’d get to meet his dealer. The year before Carpenter had had a major retrospective at MoMA. I’d likely be working on the new paintings. He’d mentor me. That’s what older artists lived for. To see their influence reflected in the next generation.
On my following visit, I was corrected. No, no, he had plenty of painting assistants. Too many. I watched as they streamed past me into his studio. I remained in the living quarters, on the sofa. According to Carpenter, my job was far more important. I would accompany him on a vital piece of business he needed to finish before…. His head shook. This was the topic he referred to as “the great extinguishing.”
As far as I could tell, the job was to drive him around. I was to retrieve his car from a garage on the Lower East Side, drive it crosstown, pick him up, drive back across to the East Village, where he had an appointment, wait, drive him back to the studio. “I thought at first Billy could do it, but he’s very reckless. He’s lost his permit already.” Maybe he wasn’t ten, then, just small. “But you, child, are exactly right. The entire matter requires strict confidentiality.” I’d been hired on the strength of my thigh-face—it inspired this confidence. At my feet, my portfolio, new sketches, a case with my brushes, since I’d anticipated he’d ask me to demonstrate my work.
“Mr. David” as he wanted me to call him, stopped painting in the late afternoons. That’s when he liked to drink port and free-associate. On his wrist a silver band into which pigs’ teeth were imbedded—it was occasionally referred to in the course of our conversations, along with numerous other things. A muddy stream of talk in which some coin-like pieces glittered. He’d drank in cafes with Picasso and Dora Maar and the “fish-eyed” Brassaï and women in green turbans. Tennessee Williams had written about him—unfavorably. Many pistols, people waving them around or threatening to shoot themselves. An alarming account of a sexual encounter with his twin brother, who’d died at 17. Of me, he asked, “Do you have a brother?” I said no. “Well, then, you wouldn’t know much about it, would you?” His mind was like a vintage magic eight ball: ask a question, shake it up, and a vaguely relevant answer would emerge. Sometimes we’d talk of my “task.” He was going to see a medium to contact one of his dead, chat a little, and deliver a formal apology. He would soon be on the other side himself, you see. Why not just wait until then to clear this up? Was he afraid this person had been marshaling forces against him over there? “No. Nothing like that. It’s me who carries shame’s weight.”
After numerous salon-style visits, a preamble that lulled me into confessor-listener, it was Tuesday. Tomorrow I was to get the car. I was to go early. It might need gas or new tires. “So it may not be drivable? I guess we can always take a cab.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Too plebian.”
The problem with this job, beyond the obvious, was that I only used my driver’s license to get into bars. I was from Ohio. I found being a pedestrian here stressful. Mr. David’s car, which took an impatient foot-jittering half-hour to extract from its tomb at the garage, was a prehistoric-looking Cadillac DeVille the size of a fishing trawler. A great expanse of hood stretched from windshield to ornament. After nearly sideswiping two cabs and a heart-stopping incident with a baby stroller, in which I visited my manslaughter trial and indictment, I inferred the left blinker didn’t work. I had to roll down the window and signal like a bicyclist, with an outstretched arm that was almost torn off by a garbage truck passing on the outside. Gripping the wheel, I arrived panic-soaked in front of Mr. David’s building. He was waiting, in a three-piece suit, with Billy. “What took you so long!” Once in the car, on this beautiful spring day, he cranked up the heat, hitting us in the face with a great blast of fetid air like from a subway grate. It smelled like rats had nested in the engine. He was talking incessantly, worriedly, as I navigated away from the horrors of Canal. Mr. David was talking, and I was tuning him out, until I realized he was discussing his upcoming encounter with the spirit.
I’d assumed he’d wanted to convene with his dead wife, or apologize to the guy he’d shot in a hunting accident in Germany sixty years ago, or maybe even talk things over with the groping twin, but no, it was some woman named Lydia who’d lived next door in post-WWII Paris. An old love? Unclear. Mr. David’s sexuality seemed to scamper about capriciously, hurdling boundaries, evading traps. During the course of our conversations, he’d twice remarked on my “bottom,” once favorably, once that indicated room for improvement.
I double-parked, put on the one flasher, and escorted him from the car to a gated door next to a head shop. In the second-story window, a pink neon light: “Psychic.” So she plied both trades—the dead and the future prospects of the living. Mr. David was dithering over his pick-up time—stalling, I thought. I was wondering where the fuck to park for the next half-hour. Even from three feet away, the Caddy was shackled to me like an albatross.
When I did return to collect him, I had the hyped-up relief of someone safely past the midpoint. It wasn’t until we were on Broadway that I looked over at Mr. David. He was gripping the door handle like a condemned man. “What did she say?” I asked.
“It doesn’t look promising.”
Wasn’t it industry standard for a medium to channel a burst of forgiveness and white light from the great beyond? So-and-so wants you to cherish the locket and know you’re loved. Mr. David stared mournfully out the windshield. A man shunned by the otherworld.
This would soon come to be the norm on psychic Wednesdays. Mr. David amped up with nerves and jittery anticipation, followed by post-visit fatigue, despondency. Two days of a zombie-like hopelessness different from his customary age-addled distraction, which was lighter, airier in tone. This was a man extruding guilt and bad feeling. He began spending his afternoons in the studio.
Either he or this place was really getting me down. What the hell was I doing? My friends had gotten legit apprenticeships or were applying to grad school. I was even jealous of my roommate working at Pearl Paint, at least he got a deal on supplies and had snagged a cheap studio-share in Long Island City. I’d stopped painting, since everything I did seemed ragingly inferior, art-school pretentious.
Mr. David’s assistants and I had no trade with each other—I was in Billy’s class of employee. Sometimes I’d hear their music drifting into the living room, the familiar sound of brushes being cleaned, sweeping up. After they’d left, and Mr. David had talked himself into a nap, I’d wander into the studio and look around. Those enormous canvases casually propped up against the wall still had the power to knock the wind out of me. He’d been working a lot in yellow, and he gave it an animalistic virility. Behind this man was something that had the power of wind, a tidal wave. “I’ve never known how not to do it,” he said once. “Perhaps it’s a fault.”
On a return trip crosstown, Orestes, wearing seersucker in the heat, was again revisiting his torments. “Lydia will never forgive me,” he said flatly. “Mrs. Hoyt says she’s rejecting even the simplest of advances. I waited too long.”
This, I knew, referred to Mr. David’s vaguely Buddhist theory of reincarnation. The best time to reach someone was while he or she was still in the holding pen between lives. There one is all generous spirit and willing to forgive. Once she’d slipped into another life form, it got harder. Especially if the person was grievously pissed, as it seemed Lydia was.
“What is it that you did to her, anyway?”
“The worst thing. I destroyed her talent. I convinced her she was no good. She quit painting, married, and then drank a tumbler full of arsenic and Lillet.”
I got a freakishly cold feeling for a second. “There’s usually more than one reason a person goes that route. It couldn’t have been your fault.”
“Clearly it was. She was an ugly girl. Buck-toothed with bad legs. She had no interest in marrying. She only cared about her work.” I tried to follow his line of reasoning, then gave up. Mr. David could be insanely vain on the subject of himself at twenty—he frequently referred to his Lord Byron-like beauty and charm. His curls.
I tabulated that at this point in time, chances were high she’d be long dead anyway, so…
He was offended. “Who knows what she would have gone on to do! She had Matisse’s sense of color. She was a superior draftsman. I robbed the world. I extinguished a great light and now I must pay for it. In my next life I’ll be punished with mediocrity. Or some other lucrative thing. I don’t want to talk anymore. I’d prefer we pass the rest of the ride in silence.”
Should his lawyer be informed? What if this charlatan was soaking him? This was no upmarket psychic—she beefed up her trade with palm reads on the sidewalk in the warm weather. In a lawn chair. On the following Wednesday, I said, “I’m coming with you to your appointment.”
He balked. Mrs. Hoyt wouldn’t like it. I would “disrupt the delicate energy fields in the room.”
“According to you, she’s not even able to make contact, so what difference does it make?”
There was the issue of the car. I’d had to bribe Billy to come along and stand in a space to reserve it, while I dropped off Mr. David, parked, and jogged back to escort him inside. It had cost me. My second week working there, I’d joked that Billy reminded me of one of those old-time “Extra! Extra!” newsboys. Billy, now hatless, avoided me.
Mrs. Hoyt’s voodoo lounge was decorated like an assisted living apartment—pastel slipcovers, chintz curtains, wicker furniture indoors, a few holiday-themed stuffed animals, everything soothing to the eye. Mr. David solemnly took his usual seat, and I had the oddly intrusive feeling of accompanying him to his therapist’s.
I wanted to dislike her, but she was actually nice, the doughy-faced Mrs. Hoyt, and completely unperturbed that I’d come to spy. She reminded me of my friends’ mothers back in Dayton—that plump maternal thing was nonexclusive, generosity and protectiveness freely handed out to her own kid or anyone else’s. I’d yet to meet one woman like this in New York. I’d never even gotten that vibe off any on the subway.
After some introductory chitchat, coffee, we got down to business. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point, Mrs. Hoyt dropped into an altered state, like someone supremely stoned. Her eyes were open, but glazed over, and she was talking in a way that didn’t really involve moving her tongue. She slowly asked someone to come in, then go, then come back. At first I was mesmerized, then I began to get serious contact high. It was like I’d jumped on a too-fast carny ride and the world was now an enormous, whirling kaleidoscope that seemed to separate, and then bring together, in rearranged overlapping chromatic patterns, the three of us in this room. I was hallucinating. I made eye contact with my mug. Did Mrs. Hoyt dose the coffee? I was conscious of an intense resentment towards Mr. David for getting me into this situation with the St. Mark’s witchdoctor, and for the time-sucking chauffeur job that had completely drained me of the only thing I’d ever wanted to do, when I felt a dry, cold sensation against the back of my knuckles, like an iguana’s belly was resting against them. I looked down and saw Mr. David was holding my hand. Mrs. Hoyt had also come to. She gestured towards me, and said, “Lydia.”
Mr. David was in a paroxysm of relief. His eyes teared. Some confirmation had been exchanged while I was spacing out. They’d found the buck-toothed, suicidal woman who may or may not have been Mr. David’s amour. Mr. David was now stroking her hand. Through parted lips, he whispered, “Thank you.”
In my head, I heard an eerie voice, much like my own voice, say: “This is what happens when you let a ninety-year-old man employ you.”
“You forgive me, don’t you, Lydia?” he asked.
“You’re aware I don’t go by the name Lydia—” I hesitated—“anymore.”
“But you do forgive?”
Would we have to go straight to the hospital after this? I felt all right but what if it had knocked his remaining marbles out of the circle? Mrs. Hoyt had reverted chimerically back into the implacable Ohioan, supportive, perhaps a bit eager for her guests to leave so that she wouldn’t miss the beginning of her TV program.
“I forgive you. Lets talk about this in the car,” I said.
“Because I know,” Mr. David said with feeling. “I know what this means you coming back to work with me. And I promise you,” he hit his own chest with the flat of his fist in a very man-to-man way, “we will work together until the day my own flame is extinguished. Side-by-side.”
“Are you talking about in the studio? You’ll let me paint?”
He shook my hand. We had a deal.
© Jessica Lott, 2012
Jessica Lott's first novel about love, contemporary art, and New York is coming out with Simon & Schuster in the spring of 2013. Her novella, Osin, won Low Fidelity Press’ Novella Award and was published in 2007. She also writes about art and received frieze magazine's 2009 writer's award.www.jessicalott.com
Just Off Canal was read by Scott MacKenzie on 2nd May 2012.