When I lost my parents at the age of eleven, my Grandmother sat me down and reeled off the names of the men and women in our family who were successful artists.
“Most of them lived to be eighty of more, and they all drew in pencil, or pen and ink - and Scott that’s what you should do,” she said.
“What about the rest of the artists?” I asked.
“They were painters and they all died young,” she said.
“My dad was a painter, but my Mom wasn’t. Why did she die?”
“Because they were skiing together,” Grandma said, then hurried off to the kitchen to cry.
I must admit, I loved our drawing trips. She started me off with rocks and flowers, but on the day I turned fifteen I wandered off on my own, found a dying apple tree, and when I brought my drawing home to her she said, “Look, Scott, there it is on paper: the somber light and the twisted trunk with its heartwood missing.”
She framed and hung the drawing in the dining room as a birthday present, but when I came home from school the next afternoon she was standing in front of my drawing clenching her fists. “What’s wrong, Grandma?” I asked.
“Scott, don’t mind me. It’s wonderful. It truly is, but what bothers me is that it looks like your father’s work when he was your age.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“Your father switched to painting when he was nineteen.”
“I won’t paint. I promise,” I said, but the scowl on her face told me she didn’t believe me.
Three years later as a freshman at the university, I was allowed one elective and chose a two-credit drawing class called ‘Advanced Composition.’ My instructor, Mrs. Newton, lined us up alphabetically in three half circles, and that’s how I met Angela, a sophomore who was majoring in dance. I took a ‘shine’ to her as Grandma likes to say, and when Angela confided in me that she couldn’t afford to fly home to Seattle for Thanksgiving I asked if she would like to come home with me, and she said she would love to.
“Could we bring my roommate Trudy as well? She’s an excellent model,” she said.
“Why not?” I said, “the more the merrier.”
As we drove the twelve miles from the university to Brattleboro early Thanksgiving morning, I made a mental list of places I would take them. However, in the ten minutes it took Grandma to give Angela a tour of the house, my guest Angela became her guest. Trudy and I were left behind to haul in the luggage, sweep the porch, and cut fire-bush boughs to make a center-piece for the table.
It was an odd meal. Everything was hurried because we were all looking forward to drawing Trudy. It was ‘a little of this; a little of that’ and ‘let’s skip the coffee,’ then we all retired to the ballroom to set up the lighting and decide who would draw where. I set up directly in front of Trudy so that I wouldn’t be distracted by Angela, but as the room filled with light I saw for the first time how blonde and thin Angela was, and how her clothes fought to hide her bony shoulders. Trudy, on the other hand, was short and muscular with beaten-back black hair and stunning legs. When she tossed her robe onto a chair and fell to the floor in the cat-like crawl Grandma asked for, Grandma and Angela nodded their approval, and I nearly fainted, and made an excuse to go to find new colors.
We broke for a snack at three. Trudy put on her robe, buttoned one button, and sat down next to me.
“Scott, what are you majoring in?” she asked.
“You, maybe.” I almost said, then told her I had no idea.
“What about you, Trudy?” I asked.
“I’ll model a few more years, then marry someone like Professor Faulk. He said he’d teach me how to run his gallery if I wanted to,” Trudy said.
“Will he pay your way to college?” Grandma asked, and warned her to be wary.
“Faulk is known for painting anonymous nudes. It started with Trudy picking lilacs wearing a straw hat to hide her face. Faulk painted her from behind at a forty-five-degree angle that captured her strong back, most of her right leg and some of her right breast,” Angela said.
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing,” Trudy said, but Grandma was not convinced.
“When Faulk moved on to frontal nudes wearing full-covering head masks dealers went crazy, and now he’s opening a gallery,” Angela said, staring at me, trying to tell me Trudy was running with a fast crowd.
In our four-o’clock sitting Angela asked Trudy to choose the poses. The first one found Trudy balanced on her right foot on the highest step of a step stool with her right arm and hand reaching forward.
“Well done, Trudy,” I shouted back to her as I ran for the lights to better define her legs.
Trudy turned down invitations to model for us for the next three months. It wasn’t until the first weekend in February that Grandma asked what had become of her, and Angela explained Trudy was no longer her roommate. She had moved in with Faulk.
“Well, that’s that then,” Grandma said. “Mark my words. Everyone knows painters are druggies and drinkers.”
I didn’t see Trudy for more than a year, not until the spring of my junior year when I ran into her in the college cafeteria and discovered that she was now an assistant manager at the local Agway store and was living alone.
“Why didn’t you call me?” she asked. “I thought we had something going.”
“Come on, Trudy, I was a freshman. You were way out of my league. Tell me, what became of the gallery?” I said.
“Faulk decided he didn’t have time for one. He didn’t want it to interfere with his drinking,” Trudy said.
“Is he still teaching?” I asked.
“No, he quit. It made it easier to find students to pose for him and make babies,” Trudy said. “That’s when I left him, when I saw the first belly.”
“I read in the Sentinel that he’d been arrested.”
“Right, he threw a party in his loft, and I blew the whistle on him and Faulk knew it. The six counts of serving liquor to a minor added up to a month in jail followed by ten weeks of drying him out in some kind of clinic.”
In early June Grandma and Angela kicked off a series of free studio classes on Saturday mornings in the ballroom. It was a sweet format. Twenty-one students broke out in groups of three, and everyone in the class took their shoes off and took turns drawing one another’s feet.
Grandma, Angela, and I participated, and at first glance Angela’s sketch of Grandma’s feet was impressive, but the more you looked at it the more obvious it was: Angela had created fantasy feet. She adored my Grandmother. She couldn’t help it.
I was about to draw Angela’s bony dancing feet, so I was relieved when Grandma called off the drawing so we could see what the students had done.
Then on the first Sunday in August my grandfather, who I have never set eyes on, called to tell her he was ill and needed her to run his gallery in San Francisco for a few months while he suffered through chemo.
“Scott, I know this is sudden, but I’m going to need you to take care of things here,” she said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I’ll call you when I know more. I’m going to look after him and Angela will see to the gallery,” she said just before they boarded their plane in Manchester.
The following morning I woke up, disarmed by the silence. The house was holding its breath, waiting for the art to begin, but what I needed was a project that would please my Grandmother when she returned home.
Funny how things turn out. I wandered up to the old barn that was now two condos and let myself in to the vacant condo to see what needed to be done. It didn’t need repairs or new paint, but the gardens and back yard were torn up and neglected. So off I went to the Agway store to find Trudy.
It took two seconds for her to finish her coffee and find her clip board, and back at the condo it took her only thirty minutes to produce three pastel drawings that transformed the gardens, the lawn, and the struggling morning glories on both sides of the front door. I was impressed. Who knew? Trudy was an artist too. Back we went to the store to load up the truck with flowers and shrubs. The turf would come later, on the next rainy day, but for now I was loading flowers and Trudy was tossing huge bags of mulch and root-bagged shrubs, and just like the first time I saw her naked, I couldn’t breathe. She was fully dressed. All it to took was her strength and grace to inspire my wanting to be with her.
Working together we were able to plant the entire garden, and unload the shrubs and mulch. We had just settled into the two soft chairs in the ballroom and were deciding between Thai or fish and chips when the phone rang. It was Angela calling to tell me what was happening. My grandfather was holding his own, but Grandma in was in bed devastated by what she had seen when she unlocked the door of the gallery: 47 of my father’s paintings
“She says she doesn’t know whether she should thank her husband or kill him,” Angela said.
“I’d go with thanking him,” I said, and she hung up on me.
A minute later I convinced Trudy to have Thai with me.
“Okay, but after we eat can I show you some self portraits at my place?” Trudy asked.
The self-portraits were good, but too modest. She rendered herself looking like a kid who wanted to smile but wasn’t allowed to.
“Have you ever sat and looked at yourself in a mirror for three hours?” she asked. “What we should do is take turns modelling for each other.”
“Good idea. Frontal and back will be more challenging. I’d also like to find a way to feature those legs of yours,” I said.
“And I want your neck and shoulders, but I don’t have the right lighting here, she said.
“We can work in the ballroom,” I said.
“Excellent. That will solve another problem I didn’t want to get into. Faulk is back in town drunk, and he keeps calling me. I had to shut off my phone,” she said.
“Good. We can get you a new phone number, but does he know where you live?” I asked.
“I’m listed in the phone book.”
“Does he know where you work?”
“Sure, but that’s not a problem. We have pagers that hook up to megaphones. All I’d have to say is ‘Message for Harry, Donnie, and Bill. Faulk on the premises.’”
“Okay, work isn’t a problem, but if Faulk is drinking that means that sooner or later he’ll drop by for a visit. You’ve got move in with me, Trudy. I’ll give you my room with the private shower, and I’ll take the guest room,” I said.
“The hell with that, Scott. Don’t kid yourself. If we’re going to be naked in the ballroom all weekend, we’re going to sleep together.”
A month later we were married, and when we called to tell Grandma she sighed and said she’d be staying indefinitely, and that Angela was leaving for Seattle in the morning.
Norman Klein has an Iowa MFA in fiction and has published 12 stories and 15 poems in the last 12 months. He has also edited for Ploughshares and taught writing at Simmons College and UMass Boston, and he is currently living and writing in the back woods of New Hampshire.