Seventeen

 

Smothered in a tangle of rambling rose, half buried in drifting sand, a low fence cuts across Albert’s path. Chipped-white pickets hide behind brambles. A tall post oozes creosote, An open gate. Eroded by the light, Dissolved in glare. A dark sliver stabbing the sky.

Coming from the shadowy tree-lined street with its closely packed houses he steps onto the open shore, Blasted by glare. To his left, a wharf runs into the harbor. Spindly pilings support a wavy deck high over the flats, Low-tide. Its end capped by a smokehouse with a high-peaked gable-roof, Doesn’t reach deep water. Weathered shingles. A patchwork of raw, rough-sawn wood, Deep cadmium orange against indigo gray.

Soft sand pours into his shoes. Fills his cuffs, weighing him down. The rhythm of his steps falls to pieces. Lifting his feet higher and higher just to keep going. Sand pocked by a myriad of crater-like footprints. He stumbles on, Sailing into a steep chop. His easel, tight under his arm, keeps slipping. Readjusting his grip, Doesn’t help. A spindly leg bounces along behind, dragging in the sand. His paint-box, swings on its strap. Bumps against his thigh. Ten yards ahead with easels set in a semicircle, is gathered a ragged remnant of Hawthorne’s class, Dark smudges against the light. Just gawking! Stumbling towards this ring of dark silhouettes, Who’s who? A young woman calls out in a high, melodious voice, “Albert! Hello!” At least Diana’s friendly.

A young woman stands beside a large canvas propped on a small easel. An oversized palette balanced in her left hand, A shield! Brushes spike outwards from between her fingers, In a sunburst! She waves a long-handled, flat-bristled brush, Tipped in bright blue. She twirls it in a broad arc in greeting.

Albert nods, “Hello, Diana.” He untangles two fingers from his easel and wriggles them, Might as well set up here.

Standing on the other end of the arc of painters, Peter’s back is turned. He’s busy critiquing the canvas of an older woman, Joined the class half way though. Stayed on, joining us holdouts and diehards.

Ten painters stand around a model, Oh! Him. A long-beaked face protrudes from under a faded yellow sou’wester cap. His skinny frame holds up creased folds of stiff oilskins. Left arm extended. Hand head-high, clutching the shaft of an oar. A worn and weathered hempen line trails across the sand from a coil in his other hand. One foot propped on a fish-crate. Bleary gaze locked on the far horizon.

His ruddy, corrugated face, All fissures and wrinkles. Dark eyes hidden beneath a massive brow thatched by bushy, salt and pepper tufts. A drooping, handlebar mustache balances beneath an aquiline nose, Today’s studies? “Fisherman Gazing Out to Sea.”

Sunlight falls across his shoulder. He alternates between spells of an almost catatonic stiffness, Like posing for a daguerreotype. And a rubbery, melting, swoon. His gaze wanders. Attracted to the windows of a house bordering the beach his pose deforms as he watches a homemaker opening windows, shaking out rugs, closing them again. His oar swings slowly through a wide arc. His head turns farther and farther to the side. His mouth wide open.

He slowly leans over to rub his nose against the back of his hand, Must think, “They won’t notice.” No one complains. Used to his habits. When his pose changes beyond recognition someone, usually Peter, calls for a break, Then the whole dance starts again.

The sun climbs and falls in the sky. Shadows revolve around the model. The tide comes in, and then, goes out with a ten-foot vertical drop that transforms the beach. The weather changes. Fast! Goes from bright sun to flat overcast. Dense fog…. Cumulus clouds, or cirrus, transform out of all recognition faster than it takes for “The Fisherman” to nod off and drop his oar. Most notice. Make adjustments….

Some don’t. The fashion for painting au pleine air has traveled better than any understanding of it. That’s how Peter might put it, “Painting outdoors? Oh? For most it’s exercise. A chance to get outside on a nice day. Something to talk about. Hawthorne’s not here to demand we paint what we see!”

Easels poised at various heights and angles. Legs splayed in staggered rows so everyone has a clear view. Most people stand. Peter’s “pupil” sits on a one-legged, folding walking-stick/seat. Her feet splayed out for balance. She swivels from side to side, driving its point deeper into the sand. Coarse, tweed skirts; tented over her thighs, running down to her ankles, armor her legs. Every so often she has to stagger to her feet. Pull the handles. Reset the point with a resolute stab and start the whole process again!

*

They’ve been at it for over an hour. A few worked their way through a stack of canvases. Left propped against easel-legs or standing in precarious house-of-cards constructions in the sand. Diana has her lone, “Fisherman.” Posed in stark silhouette against a blue horizon. Her beach, indicated by a broad swath of cadmium orange and yellow, recedes into the middle distance. A slash of dark ultramarine marks the tripod-skeleton of a nearby easel cutting across the lower right. A seagull-in-flight completes the tic-tac-toe of her composition.

Suggested by a horizontal smudge of raw sienna Long Point is wedged between a thinly washed sky and a thick impasto of lead-white glare. Her wharf’s too long. Outer pilings shorter than they should be at low-tide. Exaggerates the perspective. Shadows cut from left to right on the fish-house and fall the other way on the model.

She squeezes Cadmium Red onto her palette, “That was the most splendid gathering last evening. Was it not?” She smiles at Albert. Gazes at her composition, swishing her brush in mounds of pigment arrayed chromatically. She squints. Lays down a few jabs of cobalt-blue, cutting the edge of the sky against the roof of her fish-house.

Morton’s? More of a smoke-shrouded drinking-bout than any sort of gathering. Divine or otherwise! Albert clears his throat. Unfolds his easel. Sets up a canvas and tightens its supports, “How so?” Risk a question….

“Well. Albert. Surely you remember the spirited exchange between Adler and that Harrison fellow?” Tipping her head in his friend’s direction. Peter busy cataloging, too loudly, the shortcomings of Mrs. Wesley’s study.

“Oh? Don’t remember. Must’ve been in the other room….” Albert slips his paint box into its slot. Reaches inside. Flicks his tubes of pigment, taking an inventory of his colors, All in order….

She goes on in a cheerful and patient tone, “Oh, Albert! Surely you remember? Morton’s apartments have but one salon. Do they not? Adler was defending Invention and Imagination in Art. That Harrison fellow was going on about Truth and Color!”

Tall. Athletic. A light complexion guarded in deep shadow under a sunbonnet. A veil tied in a flamboyant bow under her chin. Blue eyes, wide-set under prominent, chestnut brows. A high forehead, High and wide. Her nose… a bit too prominent. Rounded, almost bulbous at its tip. Charming. Sensual. At her age.

Freckles scatter across her cheekbones, The only sign of her long summer at the shore. Bowed lips. A sweet cleft in her chin. Her white calico smock covers a tan and heather check suit that encases her figure. Boots to match with cream canvas sides. Bone buttons run up under the skirt to mid-calf, Her feet stick out.

Adler’s an ass. Poseur. Dandy. How can she be attracted to somebody like that! Shows her gullible side…. A strong, cheerful girl! Damn charming with that smudge of blue on her cheek!

A flirt. Shameless sometimes…. Exciting! Oh, innocent enough. Got an understanding…. A bit more than just platonic…. Still, nothing serious. We’re just not a realistic match.

“Fantasy and Imagination are the wellsprings of Art! Adler is right! That Harrison fellow….” Albert fits in an, “Uh, huh…” Or an, “Ah,…” whenever he notes a break. She goes on, “Well, you know….”

The model embarks on one of his longer slides, Does it more as a session grinds on. I’m out of sync. Senhora Santos is so nice! Captain Santos….

A sudden movement, “Oooph!” He looks up from his rough sketch. Diana slams her palette to the ground. Throws her brushes after it. Looks him in the eye, What did I do? His confusion only confirms her suspicions. She flushes. Storms off, marching down the beach, crossing behind the model in a flurry of skirts and flying sand.

Painters grab at their canvases. The whole group stops to stare. Albert blanches. Even the model breaks out of his reverie and turns to follow Diana, half running, half walking down the beach, angling towards the water’s edge. Closest to Albert, Andrew and Emma saw the whole thing. Share a knowing look.

Diana disappears into deep shadow under the wharf. Albert lowers his head. Stuffs his palette and brushes into his clattering paint-box. Sets off at a jog. Blushing deeply, Gotta do something! “Damn! What a mess!” He glares at the other painters, Oh, come on. Nothing better to do?

Makes a wide detour. Circles the group, sending gouts of sugar-fine sand high into the air. Painters shield their work. Gape after him in mute confusion, Should’a stayed away. Zigzagging down the beach, trying to catch sight of her between a clutter of pilings, Oh! Diana.

Seaweed and shells, Where is she? A dense mat strewn with rotting fish marks the high-tide line. Clumps of soggy paper. A windrow dotted with bottles, A net-float! Bubbled, bright-green glass.

He crosses a bank of hard-packed gravel that levels off onto a damp flat of fine sand at the water’s edge. The surface undulates in finely carved ripples cut by rivulets that coalesce out of imperceptible trickles, seeping down the slope. Stream-lets wash out to form miniature deltas. The sand shades from pale beige to reddish brown. Dark violet patches ooze iridescence. Release a putrid odor as he splashes through them.

A commode! A broken rim, A giant, ceramic shell, settling into the sand. Its cracked glaze traced in green and red algae. Rusty cans, large and small bones. A precinct of wheel-rims, hoops, and waterlogged blocks of dark, rotting wood.

Broken blue and white crockery, stained shades of ocher and green. Worn-out pails., rims level with the sand. Wire bails jut up. Albert trips. His headlong dive carries him past a broken wagon wheel, a cracked chamber pot, and the skeleton of an old umbrella. Catching himself, Careful!

He runs in amongst a tangle of pilings, Sudden darkness. Stops to catch his breath. Diagonal braces divide the space, blocking his view, barring his passage, thin where they rise out of small, round, water-filled depressions. Their girth bulked at waist height by masses of barnacles, mussels, and oysters. They disappear from view above his head. Their upper reaches bleached white by the sun. Marked by furry dry-rot, Chafe from boats rubbing alongside.

Under the wharf, It’s like being indoors somehow, “DIANA?” Harsh echoes bounce back. He lowers his voice, “Where are you?” Hears the soft, Splash, Plop of a delicate footfall a few bays away.

Leaning against a piling, Shoes are ruined! Albert jerks his hand away. Grimaces, cradling the heel of his palm, It’s bleeding! Shredded! The barnacles? “Oh Shit!” He reaches for his handkerchief. Wraps his hand, adjusting to the gloom. All the available light from the surrounding sand and water reflects upwards against pilings and the underside of the deck in an undulating rhythm of bright flashes.

Sounds that would leak away into an open sky are concentrated. His breathing sounds loud in his ears. His shout takes on a life of its own. It echoes in every direction between the hard surfaces of wood, sand, and water, Sound everywhere: tiny trickles, little wave slaps, even the water oozing out of the beach makes a delicate noise. Footfalls reverberate from the wharf above. Rebound off the piles.

His hand aches. Examining it closely, cradling it. The fleshy base of his thumb is raw. Deep, jagged cuts, “Ow!” It won’t stop bleeding!

Transfixed, Queasy. Light headed, “Damn!” He sinks onto his haunches, careful not to lean against the piling again, “What a baby! Some scratches! Sheesh!” He stands. Swings around. Cradles his wrist, pressing his handkerchief against the flow of blood. Softly calling, “Diana?”

Growing accustomed to the odd light and acoustics, he catches a glimpse of her jacket, There! Behind those pilings. She shifts her feet. Little splashes tinkle, Is she crying? Her shoulders tremble. A sniffle. A checked breath quickly lost in watery echoes.

Stepping towards her, “Diana? It’s me.” Rounding one last piling, dipping under a diagonal brace, he stands in front of her, “Diana.”

She looks up, She has been crying. Beneath the wide brim of her hat, Her eyes are red. She dabs a delicately embroidered handkerchief under each nostril. Turns to look at him, “Albert?”

“Diana, I’m so sorry!” He holds his hands away from his sides. Palms upward in a gesture of supplication. His eyes well-up.

They hear footsteps over their heads. Voices in Portuguese and clipped, broken English. An incomprehensible grunting. The patter of little hooves. Short bursts of frantic activity.

Their eyes meet. Hers are, Hard. She’s angry. Her mouth set. Small creases in the corners, Looks older. Her skin is blotchy in the violet light. The cleft in her chin, Deeper. A fierceness….

She locks eyes with him, Seems to say, I Don’t want your pity. She notices his handkerchief tied around his wrist. Looks into his eyes, Demanding.

Albert blushes. Sags, “Oh, Diana….” Holds out his arm. Blood soaks through white linen. She frowns, “Albert! What have you done?” He shrugs. Chuckles, “It’s nothing.” Pointing at a nearby piling, Huh? “Oh, Diana. No! Nothing like that!” Shakes his head, “Barnacles! They’re sharp! Leaned against a piling! That’s all!” On the verge of smiling, chuckling, he pulls the handkerchief away to show her, “Does bleed a lot….” He looks at his palm. Up at her. Takes a few steps towards her. Stops at arm’s length.

She blushes. Starts to giggle, “Oh, Albert!” She frowns, “But that’s the point!” Albert hangs his head, “Diana. I don’t know what to say? Not even sure what’s upset you…. I’m afraid I’ve hurt you.” He shrugs, “We’ve had a lot of fun together. You’re kind. Great company. We’ve laughed a lot and talked?” Swallowing, “Being with you…. Diana. I’m starting to see I’ve been a cad. Haven’t taken your feelings into account. I…? Hell! I haven’t been paying attention!” Dropping his hand, gazing off to one side, “I don’t know, Diana. I just don’t know…” Shaking his head, “It’s just all so sudden…. I’ve hurt you. Don’t want to make it worse. I mean… I’m…. A fool. You caught me off guard. Don’t want to say something just…. Just to make you feel better…” He trails off, frowning. “Oh! You know what I mean? I do want you to feel better. I like you! I like you a lot! It’s just… I haven’t thought about US! I don’t trust what I might say this minute. Don’t want to make it worse…. Understand?” He looks her in the eye. Meets her gaze.

Another blush, She’ll respect me now.

Breathing hard, Shit! She didn’t say anything about us! Why’d I bring that up? Gonna think me a conceited fool! Damn!

Diana smiles. Holds out her arms. Closes her eyes. Tilts her head to the side, “Oh, Albert!” He steps forward, If I kiss her now I tie myself to her! If I don’t she’ll be humiliated! Don’t just stand here! You’ll lose everything. DO something! He takes a deep breath, wishing that some grand solution will present itself. He steps forward. His foot-fall makes a, Splash. A faint smile on her lips.

He reaches for her hands. Pulls her to him. Turns his face to hers. Her eyelids flutter. Her lips purse. The touch of her palms brings a jolt of intimacy. And a stab of pain over the dull ache of his still-fresh cuts, Sweet breath. He kisses her, Her lips …. Her teeth bounce against his, bone against bone. The sound echoes in his skull.

She exhales in a big sigh.

Inhaling her breath, I’ve got her! Do I want this?

Diana wills herself over to a grand passion. She responds to the pressure of his chest against her. Breathing hard, Dizzy! “Oh, Albert!” Gasping, “Please!”

Should I stop? She lets go of his hands, That’s a relief!

Clasping his cheeks she pulls him in for another kiss. Pushes him away, struggling for air. He takes her by the waist. His injured hand slides down coarse tweed to caress the swell of her hip. Drops to her haunch. He holds her tightly by the waist with his good hand, The fit of her body!

She lets out another gasp. They smack into another tooth-jarring kiss. She grabs his elbows. Pulls his hands away.

A sharp clomping up above, Sounds like castanets! A shadow flickers across a shaft of light slanting down. A sharp, rending, tearing sound, Fantastic. What is that? A Fart?

Watery splashes sound all around them. An uneven, drip, drip. A horrible, bilious stench, “Ugh! Albert? What IS THAT!” Diana pushes him away. Clutches her nose. Doubles over in disgust.

A second jet, weaker than the first, splatters down. Slows to a trickle, Drip, drip.

Albert guards his nose with his sleeve. Looks up. Spins around. They separate, both backing away in confusion and disgust.

A metal pail Clanks at the far end of the wharf.

Clip clop! The sound retreats. A low Grunt, Squeals, Clip clop, Clip clop.

Albert spins around, Where is she?

Gone.

Pig shit!

Stepping gingerly Albert slowly re-wraps his hand. Zigzagging around pilings, dipping under the braces, he’s drawn to the enveloping darkness under the beach-end of the wharf. The deck drops lower and lower overhead. Bent-over, squatting to keep going as far as he can, running out of space, he sits, Thump, on damp, hard sand.

 

 

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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