She had set up her easel in the kitchen and I sat at the breakfast table, watching her paint. I was captured by the delicate expressiveness and strength of her hands in movement. I sat there, drinking tea, behind her, looking at the painting. Her long, thick blond hair fell onto her bare shoulders and her bare breasts jiggled as she moved the paintbrush. Sometimes she wore only jeans when she painted because, she explained, even a loose fitting blouse constricted the movements of her arms. She was painting Candy’s horses from a color photograph that was stuck to the easel with a clothespin.
The smell of Jasmine tea rose to my nostrils, mixed with the smells of turpentine and linseed oil. As the warm cup touched my lips, I was seized by a feeling of great distance and the fear that everything might come to an end after the birthday party.
I said, “Candy will be 18.”
She didn’t respond. She was absorbed in painting a detail on the head of the horse that Candy had named Chief Joseph.
I said, idly, nervously, “Your birthday is on May 11. You’ll be 20.”
“What have you decided to get Candy for a birthday present?”
She stepped back from the painting. “I’ve been commissioned by her to paint this. It was supposed to be a surprise, for the party.” She gave me a malicious glance. “But now you know.”
She had been working on it for several days. I said, “I didn’t know you did realism.”
“I don’t, but Candy wants it.” She shook her hair imperiously. “People are so impressed with realism. They think you can’t paint if you do anything else.”
“You like Candy don’t you.”
After a moment’s thought, she said, “I don’t want to talk about Candy.”
I watched her paint for awhile and then said, “What if I told you I was going to stop seeing her?”
“I would be worried about her.”
“I mean stop sleeping with her.”
She was silent. Then she said, “Let’s change the subject.”
I said, “I love you.”
She didn’t say anything and I decided not to ask her to marry me.
Suddenly, she asked, “Why don’t you marry her? You spend most of your time with her.... “
“Can’t you see I’m trying to paint?” Her smooth forehead was pressed into a frown and her eyes glared into her painting.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“How can I paint when you just sit there, ... brooding.”
“I’m not brooding.”
“I have to finish this.”
“It’s beautiful. It’s finished.”
She painted in silence for a few minutes and then asked, “When do you want to do it?”
She said, “You’ve already talked to Jeannette, haven’t you?” She often called her mother by her first name.
“She acts like you’re part of the family already.” She daubed the canvas with a multicolored rag. “I’m wrecking this.”
I asked, “Did she tell you...”
She ignored me. “There. I like it. Finally, I like it.” She stood back, with the rag dangling from her hand.
I said, “The heads look almost real, but the rest has a dreamy quality, as if they’re in the air.” I got up and stood in front of it, next to her. I kissed her on the cheek and put my arm around her waist. “I’m probably just a philistine and overly impressed with realism but I think you’re talented.”
She gave a little laugh. “It took a very long time to develop my talent. Jeannette enrolled me in art classes when I was just a tot.” She made a motion with the brush as if she was about to paint my face and I backed away.
“Your mother was good to you,” I said.
“Before she met Esterhazy and when she wasn’t drinking.”
She looked at me. “Didn’t she tell you about Esterhazy?”
I shook my head.
“I’ll be damned. You know Brad, she likes to keep secrets.” She made a face, like a naughty child about to tell something it shouldn’t. “But she’s not going to keep this one.” She turned back to the canvas and began painting again. She spoke without looking at me, “He was a rich Frenchman. I say ‘was’ because we haven’t seen him for about five years. Naturally he was married.” She laughed. “The other guy was too.”
“The other guy?”
She twisted around to look at me. “The
art dealer. I liked him. But Esterhazy. He was a
dog.” She turned back to the canvas,
and painted the sky, furiously. “He
was the head of the French Consulate. In
I moved my chair.
She said, “For real? She never told you about Esterhazy?”
“I told you, peaches, she never mentioned him.”
“I thought you two were so close, with your ‘spiritual’ relationship and all.”
“We are close.” I gave her a forlorn look, “But she sees my father in me, and not me.”
“She sees you all right and she likes what she sees. Believe me. She thinks you’re Sir Galahad or something. She thinks you’re the catch of the century.” She smiled her come hither smile. “It’s the only thing that makes me suspicious of you.”
“Tell me about Esterhazy.”
She painted the ground underneath the horses. “Did you know that Jeannette’s mother was from a prominent French family and her father was a Communist?”
“Dr. Orenstein said something about ancient Norman stock. I thought Jeannette's mother was a Communist too.”
“My grandfather converted my grandmother to Communism. My grandmother’s family ostracized her when
she became a Communist.” The ground
under the horses’ feet began to look like clouds again. “So they - my mother's parents - came to
“We we’re all supposed to pretend that nothing was happening between him and my mother but his wife and kids were lousy actors. It was really embarrassing.”
“Do you speak French?”
“French. Me? Never. I mean I took it in high school and all. I couldn’t get around that. But they couldn’t make me speak it. The teacher finally gave up. Bless her soul, Mme. Beauchamp. She really tried.”
“Where’s Esterhazy now?”
“He was promoted to the French Embassy, in
“What’s beautiful about a couple of bags of fat with baby pacifiers on the end of them?”
“Haven’t I found a good use for them?”
She smiled faintly, and turned back to the canvas.
“I’ve never told you this.”
She was silent.
“I’m afraid of your beauty.”
Her body swayed, imperceptibly but she didn’t say anything.
“I don’t want to have to think about a lot of men trying to take you away from me.”
She wheeled around. Her eyebrows were raised and her blue eyes were open wide.
I said, “I’m serious. Don’t deny your beauty.”
“How can you can be so...”
“So ... illogical.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, You and Candy, that’s what I mean.”
“You have two girl friends and you’re worried about me being interested in other men?”
“Yes!” For the first time that morning, I was tempted to get angry, just to make her suffer. “Marlo.”
“I have to tell you something else.”
“What could be more important than the fact that you have two girlfriends?” Her face softened, and her eyebrows arched, coyly, “Unless you are going to tell me you have another one?”
“Tonight. Your mother’s planned it.”
“It’s...” I felt beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I got up from my chair and went to the couch.
She put her paintbrush down. “Brad. What’s the matter?”
We sat on the couch and she played with my hair, absently, with her fingers, while I waited for the right moment.
She said, after a very long silence, “Are you going to make me guess?”
“You and Candy...”
“Candy and me.”
“Your mother and Reverend Hollyfield.”
“He’s Candy’s father.”
“Is that important?”
“I love you.”
She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “I think you’ve told me you love me more times this afternoon than ever before.” She reached across and stroked my forehead with the back of her hand. I was silent. “Brad. Say something.”
I sat there, mute. She got up and paced the floor. Finally, she knelt down in front of me and placed her face close to mine and her blue eyes looked into my eyes, intensely, questioning. “Brad. Something’s the matter. Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“I have to tell you something important...”
“You already said that!” Her voice was shrill.
“She’s your sister.”
Her expression didn’t change. She was on both knees and her hands were on my thighs.
“Who is my sister?”
“Jeannette is Candy’s mother too, and Reverend Hollyfield is your father. She is going to tell you both, tonight.”
“Why are you making up a story like this?” She got up and picked up a large green ashtray that was sitting on the coffee table and held it tightly in both hands. “It isn’t funny.”
“Marlo, I’m sorry....”
She moved the ashtray towards her breasts and stared at me menacingly.
“Put the ashtray down.”
She didn’t move. “Tell me you’ll stop.”
Her eyes blazed.
“Jeannette was married to Robert Hollyfield once. They were friends of my parents. I knew you when you were a baby.” My voice was surprisingly calm. “Marlo, we have to remain calm. Please. Candy doesn’t know yet. We have to protect her. We can’t allow ourselves to freak out.” Very slowly, without allowing her eyes to leave mine, she lowered the ashtray. “I wanted you to know before Candy, because you’ve got to be strong for her.”
She placed the ashtray on the coffee table and sat down next to me. “Goddamn her. Why?” She began to cry, silently. “Why has she kept a secret like this from me all these years. Goddamn her.”
“She didn’t think it was even remotely possible that you would ever meet Candy, so there was no need for you to know.”
I held her while she cried, silently, in my arms. Suddenly, she looked up at me. “You can’t believe all of the lies she’s told me.” She plunged back into my arms and I held her for a long time. Then she gave a long, loud sigh. “I have to be strong. For Candy ... Oh my God.”
“It’s no goddamned wonder we look so much alike, is it? Christ Almighty.” She shook her head in disbelief and then, as if she had discovered something important, exclaimed, “Good! Yes. I’m glad now.” She turned to me. “She’s my sister. She looks like my sister. And she loves you too.” She laughed, and her head shook back and forth in disbelief. “It’s all right.” She looked at me as if I was a ghost. I felt a very great distance between us but slowly, the distance diminished and we moved back into each other’s arms.
After about five minutes, she said, “I’m tired of being beautiful, of all the looks, the whistles, the old men drooling over me, the little boys.... And I’m tired of looking like Candy too.... I’m going to cut my hair off, all of it. And I’m going to dye what’s left some horrible color.”
“I love your hair.”
“I’ll save it for you. You can weave it into a braid and wear it around your neck at the wedding.” She got up. “I’ve got to add some final touches, ... for my sister. And then I’m going to paint your Volkswagen.”
I laughed. “Paint the Volkswagen! Paint me if you want to. Or paint your mother. Don't paint that thing.”
“I want to put paint on it, silly. I want to paint it psychedelic. For the wedding. I want to make it into a work of art.”
I laughed, “For the wedding? Sure. Why not?”
She began using a fine brush again to paint in details on the heads. She asked, “Have you ever heard of Jackson Pollack?”
“I’ve heard the name.”
“Sometimes, I think he just throws paint on the canvas.”
“I could do that.”
“I figure anyone who can throw a baseball the way you do, can throw paint on a car.”
“Do you believe in God?”
She frowned and returned to her painting. I thought for awhile, and said, “For me, God is like a wise father who has died and who will never come back again.”
She thought for a moment and said, “And when the wind blows in the wrong direction, the smell from his carcass forces you to pray that the wind will change directions.”
She asked, “Why don’t you bury him?”
“Do you believe in happiness?”
She turned away again and said, “I don’t know, Socrates.”
“Do you believe that love brings happiness?”
I watched her beautiful hands for a long time, waiting for an answer. When it was clear that she was waiting for me to say something, I said, “Well, if you don’t believe that love brings happiness, do you at least believe in love?”
“I didn’t say anything. I think Platonic dialogues are stupid.”
“Your nipples are erect.”
“My painting is almost ready. When my nipples are hard I know it’s finished.”
“Maybe it’s just Chief Josef. One of my fantasies is being fucked by a stallion.” She daubed Chief Joseph’s flank, studiously.
I said, “Would you mind using my puny body as a vehicle for a stallion fantasy?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
After we made love, she said she was going to cut off her hair but I convinced her to wait until after the party.
As we lay there on the couch, lost in each other, I wondered if I would ever make love to Candy again.
She whispered, sleepily, “You talk too much Brad. Shut up for awhile and let me sleep.” She raised her head from my shoulder and kissed my neck and then nestled back onto the soft pillow of her own hair and fell asleep almost immediately.
While she was snoring, I was seized by the desire to go to Jeannette’s flat and make her promise, again, that she wouldn’t tell them that Candy was my sister too. I waited patiently until Marlo awoke and then extricated myself from her arms.
I left her on the couch, promising her that I would return with Jeannette, within the hour, and drive them to the farmhouse.
Jeannette opened the door to her flat, holding a
She said, “It looks like you’re getting the shakes yourself.” My ribcage was vibrating with emotion. She stared up at me, looking small and vulnerable, holding onto the glass of dark liquid as if it were a tiny anchor. The fine lines of mascara were under her lower eyelids again and she was wearing too much makeup.
“Put down the drink, mom.” I said. Her eyes were immense and anxious. She placed the glass on the coffee table and slid into my arms and we hugged each other for a long time.
I said, “I’m afraid about tonight.”
She said, “So am I.”
“I told Marlo already that you’re Candy’s mother. She took it very well.”
“But I don’t want you to say anything to Candy. Not yet.”
I said, “I wanted to be sure.”
Her chin pressed against my chest. She said, “I don’t want you to move. I want you to stand here forever.”
“Why is life so difficult?”
“I don’t know.” Her body felt very small in my arms and yet she seemed as strong as the earth
I said, “We’re due up there in half an hour.”
She slipped from my arms. “Lights, camera, action.” She picked up her glass and went into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and placed the glass inside. “I don’t believe in wasting good liquor.” She made a flourish with her hand that reminded me of Marlo and disappeared into the hall, saying, “I’m almost ready. I’ll just be a few minutes.”
I waited in the darkness. The perfume of flowers was in my nostrils and Jeannette sang softly in the bedroom. My thoughts wandered to the Reverend Robert Hollyfield and to my mother’s revival meetings. The darkness of the living room was filled with the ghosts of men, women and children giving their hearts to the Lord and confessing their sins. I felt the abyss at my feet, and a frisson of foreboding passed through my body. Then I thought of Jeannette and suddenly, for the first time that day, I felt the solid ground of the moving Earth under my feet.
When we arrived at my apartment to pick up Marlo, there was a note pinned on the front door. Jeannette read it out loud.
“Candy came to get me. See you. Love and xxxxxxx,