The brothers try to keep the peace, but it is hard to do. All their lives they have been intimate but wary of each other, all through childhood shared a room. Now Andrew is forty and James thirty-seven, and since their father died this year they must divide the estate. Both men fear the prospect, and neither wife is willing to help; the women have long since stopped speaking to each other, and refuse to meet.
“Just once?” asks Andrew. “Can’t you jump over your shadow?”
“Please. Is it so difficult?”
“I’m not an acrobat,” says Jill. “I can’t do a back-flip. And don’t want to try.”
“That bitch would cheer if I hurt myself. Jumping over my shadow, I mean. Your father was a sweetheart, but it’s too much to ask.”
James too has hoped for, if not the full cessation of hostilities, a truce. But Ariane remains implacable, her Gallic sense of honor at stake and her anger unassuaged. “I like ton frère,” she tells her husband, “and while he is alone I wish always to accommodate him. But this is not something a reasonable person does. I refuse absolutely to be part of her ambition and her scheming ways. No good result will come of it, I warn you, cheri. Je le jure.”
The women have been rivals not for their husbands’ affections, but for their father-in-law’s. The dead man was indiscriminate in his love of women or, as he used to put it, an all-embracing admirer of the fair sex. ‘Beautiful!” he would exclaim. “I need to take a photograph. I need to draw you, my lovely, I must preserve you in oil.”
Then he’d produce his Leica or his sketchbook, staring intently at the face and body of his visitor until they turned away or shed their clothes. “I adore you,” he would whisper. “A goddess. An absolute vision in lace!”
Such admiration was omnivorous and, the boys knew, non-selective; there were always women by their father’s side. After twenty years of suffering through his amorous adventures, their mother filed for divorce. The next year she succumbed to ovarian cancer, and the boys in their young manhood watched a series of blondes and redheads and brunettes their father praised while painting and sooner or later made love to. “I need to explore you,” he’d say. They were tall or short, ample or slender, keen-eyed or myopic; it didn’t seem to matter to the artist; always, he reached out an arm.
Over time that arm embraced the girls and women they in turn brought home; loudly, he commended this one’s neck or that one’s thigh. His romantic partners called him charming and suggested or declared that he was full of, to put it delicately, passionate enthusiasm: so much a woman’s man and so appreciative. Their wives would not, the brothers told themselves, have encouraged their father’s advances, and not let him take them to bed. But perceptibly they brightened when flirting with the old roué, and perceptibly each bridled when the other one entered the room.
Near the end his reputation grew. His nudes became a calendar: arms and legs and breasts and backs and buttocks—never a face or distinguishing feature—that composed the sequence of a year. The twelve months displayed twelve separate models; the bodies were rendered in much the same way, but proportion and emphasis differed. Some of the figures were young, some old; April looked pregnant, and November was skeleton-thin. These were not “Miss April” or “Miss November” in the manner popularized years before by Playboy Magazine; rather they were studies—warts and all—of puckering tangible tactile female flesh.
The drawings were fashioned in chalk. The chalk was red, on gray paper, and it seemed as though the artist’s model—whether plump or lean, big-breasted or pert—hid her face on purpose, abashed by the gaze of the witness and turning her face to the wall. This brazen display of modesty proved somehow doubly affecting—like Degas’s pastels of women emerging from or entering a bath. But where the Impressionist master’s nudes conveyed a kind of inwardness, a self-absorbed Noli me Tangere, the ladies of the calendar suggested to the viewer that each had been thoroughly touched.
Their father’s landscapes and, later, abstract figure-scapes are hanging in private collections, and a 2002 self-portrait—done in blue and gray, with his horn-rimmed glasses emphasized, and a bottle of scotch by the easel—has been recently purchased by MOMA, though not as yet for display. Two additional self-portraits hang in museums in San Francisco, and one in New Orleans. He studied himself, thinks Andrew, and examined women often, but when did he see me? James wonders the same, but his pronoun is us. They each retain an early portrait of their mother—dressed, not naked—and have had it framed.
The brothers meet for lunch. Afterwards they plan to dismantle their father’s studio apartment on West 29th Street, and have chosen a bistro nearby. “Sans Souci” is modest yet pretentious, the walls festooned with photographs of Paris and performers such as Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and Charles Aznavour. Tables front the pavement, but they sit inside. They have not seen each other in three weeks.
“How have you been?” asks James.
“OK. And you?”
“OK. Thanks for asking; we’re fine.”
“Where are we?” Andrew inquires. “In this procedure, I mean.”
“God knows,” says James. “It’s a busy time of year.”
“You can say that again,” Andrew says.
Striving for levity, his brother repeats: “It’s a busy time of year.”
It is June 1. The studio lease comes due in July, and the men agree there’s no point in renewal; instead, they must clean the place out. They have begun to do so, dealing with all but the art. Their father’s clothes were worn and tattered and easy enough to donate to Goodwill; with the exception of a standing floor-length mirror and a mahogany cabinet—six drawers of unfinished work—his furniture was junk. The TV set was ten years old, the stereo system defunct. His catalogues and art-books went to the Art Students League of New York, where he taught for twenty years as an adjunct faculty member; the librarian assured them that certain texts will enhance their collection; others would be sold in order to enlarge the acquisition fund. Three scholarship students, under James’s supervision, have boxed and removed the books.
Art galleries and juice bars dot the neighborhood; there are cigar shops also, and falafel stands. Andrew arrived ten minutes early and walked past the building where their father lived and worked; James has done the same. These initial forays did not intersect, however. Tenth Avenue is thick with trucks, the side streets clogged with delivery vans and double-parked cars and men selling paperback books. Outside the restaurant, a wild-haired woman begs, the sign at her neck reading, “HOMELESS and ABUSED.”
“Ariane sends—what’s the word?—regrets.”
Politeness rules the day. “I didn’t expect her,” says Andrew.
“Jill does too.”
“Please give her my best,” says James, not meaning it.
A butcher shop and package store flank their father’s door. His studio is a third-floor walk-up, with north-facing windows and a small bedroom and galley kitchen befitting a young person and not a white-haired bent-backed seventy-six year old with emphysema who collapsed on the second-floor landing and died before the EMT’s arrived. The painter was wearing his old leather jacket, his blue jeans and a paisley scarf; whether he fell while ascending or descending is an unanswered question. James likes to believe he was coming back home and Andrew likes to think that he was headed out. But because of the way the body lay sprawled—knees curled and arms akimbo—they do not know if he was stepping up or down.
“Hot day,” says Andrew.
“Yes. It might rain.”
“I don’t believe it. The forecasters always announce it might rain…”
“Well, someday they’re bound to be right.”
They smile. This is a reference to a movie they once saw together, an Australian film: Breaker Morant. The hero of the movie—a brave man, even reckless—has as his motto the phrase: “Live every day as if it’s your last. And someday you’re bound to be right.”
“Live, eat and be merry,” says Andrew.
His brother completes the bad joke: “For tomorrow we diet.”
The men have inherited, if little else, their father’s penchant for comic platitudes. He pronounced them often. “A painting a day keeps the doctor away,” he would tell his children, squinting at an easel. Or, “Just remember Hokusai, the ‘old man mad about painting.’ He said that in his seventies he was beginning to understand landscape; for me it’s the same thing. The valley of a clavicle, the absolute hill of a hip…”
His will is clear—an equal division to each of the sons—but there is not much money to divide. After having paid the legal fees and extant debts and the surprisingly high cost of an obituary notice, only a small sum remains. This they share. It was their father’s wish to have no Memorial Service and to be cremated; his ashes repose in a jar. James and Andrew plan to scatter them, but have not as yet decided when or where.
The bulk of the “estate” lies in oils, stacked or shelved or still on easels in the studio; after lunch they will begin the process of dismantling. Their principal remaining challenge, therefore, is the artist’s archive: where to store it, how to sell it, which drawings to claim and preserve. Artists have, their father said, either too much success or too little; the hardest thing of all is just to keep on keeping on. He did keep working till the end; the self-portrait on his easel—a rainbow of dabbed stabs of color at the eyes and eyebrows—was, when he died, still wet.
“You’re sure you don’t want to go through his closet?” Andrew had inquired of his wife, and she told him, “Yes.”
“Yes, you’re sure or yes you’ll come along.”
“Not if she’s there.”
James asked Ariane the same question, and the answer was similar: “Non.”
Task-oriented, the older son produces his iPad with a list titled “To Do.” He sets it between them while they scan the menu, deciding against the “Prix Fixe.” The brothers order soup and a Salade Nicoise and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. The room is nearly empty; the staff wear black and white.
“How’s things?” asks James.
“Fine,” Andrew tells him. “You?”
“Getting ready for school’s summer break. I tell you, I can’t wait.”
“They don’t get any older, do they? Your students.”
“Tenth grade is the pivot, it seems. Tenth grade is when you start to see who they might become as grown-ups. But nothing’s been decided yet, and I spend the entire semester trying to persuade them that the Federalist papers matter. The Bill of Rights means what it says. All those dead white men who wrote the constitution were once alive, I tell them, and the fuss about Hamilton helps. These are the sort of kids whose parents buy them tickets, and who know the show’s lyrics by heart.”
“You must be a good teacher.”
“Getting better. But I’m bored.”
James teaches in a private school in Riverdale, where the children of the rich are groomed for Ivy League colleges; his subjects are American History and English, and his annual salary is roughly the equivalent of what the children’s chauffeurs earn—a point he often makes when Ariane comes home with a new scarf or costly cut of meat. Andrew, on the other hand, works as a Hedge Fund advisor, and his Christmas bonus sufficed to finance the purchase, in February, of a summer home in Southhampton.
Jill has hired an Interior Decorator, and spends her days with color wheels and wallpaper samples and in the shops of Antique dealers who specialize in French provincial furniture. Each brother has a son and daughter, and when members of the family convene—which they do only rarely now—the children form what they have called “the cousins’ club.”
“To Dad,” says Andrew, and they clink glasses.
“To the old bugger,” says James.
“Do you ever ask yourself,” asks Andrew, “what it would have felt like to have a—oh, I don’t know, a normal childhood? A father who came home from work and dropped his briefcase in the hall and drank his waiting martini?”
“You’ve been watching Mad Men.”
Andrew nods. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t wonder about it. Imagine what it would have felt like if our parents loved each other. Or had a good marriage instead of a circus.”
“Every marriage is a circus,” James declares. “Not a three-ring circus, always, but always at least two.”
“What are you saying?”
“Mom loved him, I’m certain. Until she couldn’t take it any longer. Always that third act under the tent, always a contender for his affections at night.”
“What an elegant way to put it.”
“Have you seen this?” James asks. He produces a spiral notebook of the sort their father used, its pages thick with pen and pencil drawings. The cover page, in large block letters, proclaims the one name: JILL. Carefully he hands it to his brother, who holds the book as if deciding whether or not to open it, then puts the object down. The bottle of wine and the pitcher of water and the notebook form a triangle on the red checked tablecloth.
“Where did you get this?” asks Andrew. “When?”
“From Dad’s cabinet of curiosities. Last week when I was helping those kids from the Art Student’s League pack up his books and catalogues. Right next to the sketchbook that says ARIANE.”
From his briefcase he pulls an identical volume and sets it on the table also. “The sisters-in-law,” he offers. “They make a matched pair.” The rectangular sketchbooks confront each other like a reproach. Their covers are thick mottled cardboard: yellow ochre. Now, with a fourth focal point, the objects on the table form a square.
Andrew empties his glass. “Have you looked at them?”
“It’s hard not to,” says his brother. “But I haven’t studied them closely. He missed Ariana’s mole—the one, I mean, on her lower back.”
“I didn’t know she had one.”
“No, you wouldn’t. But dad did.”
“Dear Christ,” says Andrew. “He never ever stopped, did he?”
“We could ask them if they want these…”
“Or want them destroyed.”
“Do I what?”
“Want to destroy them?”
The waitress clears their plates. She suggests a second bottle; they shake their heads and order espresso instead. The men share a reluctance to leaf through the sheets, to study what their father saw or look at what he drew. They wait for the coffee to come. What to make, they ask each other, of a life lived so selfishly that feels nonetheless devotional; what example has the painter set? How best to deal, they wonder, with their father’s legacy: a shambling yet absolute focus, an inconsistent constancy? After some moments, agreement is reached. Each takes the sketchbook with his own wife’s name and positions it face upward where the leavings of the meal have been removed. The objects bulk on the now-rumpled cloth.
“Let’s see what’s here,” Andrew says.
The first five studies of JILL are her ankles and toes—intimate viewings and carefully wrought. There are three or four versions on each of the pages, as though the draughtsman wished to rehearse his knowledge of anatomy and his proficiency with metatarsals, toenails and the arch of an instep—all delineated with precision and cross-hatched with fine pencil strokes. Then come a calf and thigh. By the time the artist draws the upper thigh his strokes grow broad, and at the cleft of the model’s spread legs he uses a thick yellow chalk. Andrew clears his throat. He wants to use the formal words: his wife’s pudendum has been attentively studied, her labia incised with ink, and the coiled pubic hairs are rendered with precision: tight spirals in a cluster. The slight roll of fat above her vulva feels familiar; so is the look of her navel and the line of her arched lower back. By the next drawing—the woman’s buttocks raised and splayed, her hand between them, probing—his formality of language fades, and Andrew thinks, Cunt, cunt.
“Dear Christ,” he says again.
“You didn’t know?”
He shakes his head. “Did you?”
James hesitates. “I guessed, I think. Once I asked Ariane what she’d been doing at the studio—she came home late and a little disheveled—and she said she made some soup for Dad while he was noodling with his sketchbook. Canoodling I suppose would be more like it—whatever that word means. But when I pressed her she said nothing, implying it wasn’t my business, and I should leave it alone.”
“Frankly, I was happy to. And did.”
“Jill never told me.”
“When did he do these drawings, do you think?”
“Six years ago, roughly; they’re dated. October 12, 2011 is the sketchbook for Jill and November 1 for Ariane.” James points. “Here. On the title page.”
“So they overlapped?”
“A little, maybe. One went in as the other went out.”
They sit back, surveying each other and each other’s wives. Their dead father’s hand hovers between them, fondling the demitasse cups. His is a palpable presence, a reminder of old venery. The long-legged black-haired waitress, passing by their table, asks, “Is everything all-right, Messieurs?”
James answers in his fluent French that they have much enjoyed the meal but will sit a little longer. She brings a plate of macaroons, saying “Compliments de la maison.” Their father’s paintbrush limns her, and he licks his lips. Hips swiveling, she turns from them, and Andrew asks: “Is that why they’re so angry with each other?”
“Jill and Ariane.”
“I thought you knew. Of course.”
There are additional reasons. Ariane attended the Sorbonne; her parents are retired doctors, living in Aix-en-Provence. She has a deep-seated conviction that the culture of America is second-rate, and crass commercialism is the hallmark of the bourgeoisie. Her sister-in-law examples this acquisitiveness; she looks at Jill’s possessions with a mixture of envy and scorn. The jewels are vulgar, she tells her husband, the apartment tastelessly furnished, and the house in Southhampton—which she has no intention of seeing, and will not be invited to—sounds like a perfect horror of display.
“It’s not so much,” says Ariane, “that she is stupid—this I can forgive, it’s how she was born and no fault of her own. But that she believes herself intelligent and her opinions should be listened to, this is insupportable. Ignorance! Bétises!”
For her part, Jill is outraged by what she calls the self-indulgence of her French sister-in-law. Their mutual dislike has simmered for years and at the least provocation erupts into a boil.
“I won’t be condescended to,” his wife insists to Andrew. “That high horse she rides, it’s full of horse-shit, it’s attitude, attitude, attitude, and I won’t put up with it; what makes you think I should?”
Ariane is lean, intense, and only recently has given up on cigarettes; Jill is conscious of her weight and—even with a personal trainer and three sessions a week of Pilates—fights to keep it down. Ariane is dark, Jill pale; the former is an excellent cook, the latter pays a catering service to provide their meals. Ariane, a Democrat, is outraged by her recently acquired knowledge that Jill votes Republican; the women share a birthday—October 23—and somehow that too has become an affront.
The children are an additional bone of contention: their manners, their mode of education, their need to wear glasses, their study of the piano or agility in sports. This competitive rancor has poisoned the well, and only the dead painter’s admiration had been a source of comfort and a provisional peace. He praised the two of them equally, or so it seemed, and told his sons how fortunate they were to have married such great beauties—a pair of blessed damozels he would love to draw.
He has done so with a vengeance. They lie splayed on the restaurant table like two cuts of meat. There are quick sketches, composite ones, with several studies crossed out. The final pages of each notebook contain finished full-length portraits: small-scale but exact. Their wives have been anatomized, both lying back on what the husbands recognize as their father’s camp-bed and both with their legs spread.
The detailing is careful; Jill’s ample upper thighs, full breasts and outthrust elbow are cross-hatched with a fine-nibbed pen that—no matter how rapidly the artist worked—would have taken time to complete. The visage too—unlike the blank or absent faces of the models in his calendar—is one that’s fully drawn. The expression on Jill’s face is one of pleased satiety, and Andrew cannot keep himself from wondering why his wife would have permitted or solicited this session: what was she doing while posed? When did his father paint her, how often, and why such an open display? The word has become a refrain in his head, and he cannot keep from repeating it: cunt.
Ariane, too, seems available on paper in a way that surprises her husband: the tight-wound caution gone, the hunger for sensation keen—though in his own experience she could prove distant and withholding in the act of sex. This figure, by contrast, seems wholly absorbed in the pleasures of flesh. Her eyes are glazed, half-shut above the avid-seeming invitation of her open mouth. Her hair curls in tendrils above a wet ear; her chin has been tilted, upturned. He cannot look at her the way a stranger might; he cannot see this pencil-and-ink study of a naked woman as a work of art. An objective viewer might perhaps find fault with or praise the rendition as faithful; what James sees on the pages he leafs through is an act of infidelity: his wife on his dead father’s bed.
“À la prochaine,” says the waitress, now tending the cash register, and James nods. They leave. The day has grown hotter, or perhaps it’s the after-effect of lunch with wine, but both men feel dizzy, a little. Turning the corner, Andrew stumbles and must steady himself on a trash receptacle. Two black teenagers approach them, singing, then pass by.
James produces a key to their father’s apartment and opens the door and checks the mailbox—which contains, now, only impersonal mail and circulars stuffed within. Slowly, Andrew going first, they climb the stairs and pause at the second-floor turn-around; bicycles and roller blades occupy the landing where their father fell. Someone has been frying onions; somewhere, a radio blares.
Inside, they see his coffee cups and soup pots arrayed on hooks above the sink. His painter’s smock and white straw hat still hang from pegs in the hall. The studio is airless, and Andrew cranks open a window, then they turn to face each other and the array of canvases piled three or four deep on the floor. There are a hundred or so such objects: two feet by three feet, as if in a series; there are larger canvases also, most of them facing the wall.
“OK?” asks James.
They set to work. This means, they have agreed, they will separate what’s finished from what was rejected by the artist or stored against future completion; they will catalogue what’s done and what remains to do. The finished paintings and the works-in-progress can be readily determined, since the latter are unsigned. Habitually, their father added his signature and date to a canvas only when he deemed it done.
The brothers know that what they scan has scant commercial value; the artist’s two last dealers closed their galleries, and one of them is dead. It is in any case a world with which they’re unfamiliar; in part, perhaps, as a reaction against their father’s part in it they both have steered free of the “art scene.” His reputation, though solid, is small. Once or twice they met a critic or a curator who regaled them with some anecdote about parental misbehavior; and once or twice somebody asked if they were related to the painter, since the last name is unusual. But the task they face is private, not a public one, and no third party will supervise or second-guess decisions. James hopes to be finished by late afternoon; his brother knows it will take longer and is prepared to return.
Andrew takes out his iPad and commences to fashion a list. There are four categories: Landscapes, Abstractions, Portraits, Nudes. The fourth is the most populous: his focus in old age. The nudes are faceless, always, and always female; in the first half hour, of the forty works they catalogue, sixteen are studies—begun or finished—of a woman’s back and breast. Another four detail an ankle; two focus on a knee.
It ought to be, the brothers tell each other, a time for revelation; it ought to come clear finally whether their father was major or minor—what sort of achievement and what sort of talent was his. Was his, they wonder, a noble pursuit or professional indulgence or just seductive skill? It would be nice, says James, if we spent more time together, but they both know this won’t happen; once their task has been completed, they will go their separate ways.
For all they can see are the nudes. The women turn to face them, or turn their heads away. They line the artist’s studio like prostitutes in a bordello painted by Lautrec—indifferent, filing their nails. In his landscapes and skyscapes and seascapes the brothers see the limbs of naked female bodies; in his abstract compositions they discern, or think they do, the outline of arms, breasts, and legs. Where earlier the studio seemed only and entirely the place their father lived and worked, it now feels haunted, a place to flee.
After an hour, Andrew says, “I’m not sure I can handle this.”
“It seems somehow intrusive. Or, what’s the word, invasive.”
“Can’t we hire someone?”
“Oh, anyone. One of those students who boxed up the books…”
They come to a large canvas that had been facing the wall. The brothers turn it face-forward: four feet high by six feet wide, and signed by the painter in the lower right-hand corner, then dated 4/17/12. Two life-sized naked women crowd the composition, though one lies left to right, the other right to left. The blonde lies above the brunette. This is not so much an opposition as a charged asymmetry; the plump one’s head faces the lean one’s feet, and they meet in the center, navel to navel, where they have joined hands. Flesh occupies the bulk of the canvas; there is only the dark outline of a bed, a rumpled sheet, and the wall behind them is a wash of blue. In the upper right-hand corner of the painting, a window opens out upon a world elsewhere.
As in their father’s calendar drawings, the faces of the models are an ochre blur. The bodies, however, have been rendered with anatomical precision: thickly painted in the manner of an Alex Katz, or the photo-realism of a young Chuck Close. The arrangement itself—two naked women facing each other—suggests a Tibetan mandala and owes much to Matisse. The fluid circularity of their adjacent legs and arms evokes La Danse: a daisy-chain of reaching hands, of near-interchangeable limbs. Whatever else is true of the conception and composition, the canvas argues mastery: these models are present, are here.
Four people crowd the room. Even without distinguishing features, the two men recognize their wives; the painting might as well be titled JILL and ARIANE. Now what their father saw is what their husbands see. The final studies in the sketchbooks they examined over lunch are studies for this full-size effort: a back-to-front adjacency of buttocks, bellies, legs. The women have been lovers, clearly, and are engaged in or preparing for—or, perhaps, in a brief respite from—the act of love.
Andrew looks at James; James looks away. “What do you make of this?” the older brother inquires.
There is silence between them. The silence extends. They want to ask:
(1) Is this scene imagined or real?
(2) When did the women consent to be drawn, and how often:
(3) Did they come together willingly, by accident, or only
after the fact?
(4) Were the women rivals; was a preference expressed for
one over the other?
(5) Did their father urge them to remove their clothes?
(6) Then to embrace?
(7) Had the painter slept with them also?
(8) Separately or together?
(9) Did he want his sons to see this? Did he show it to
strangers? Art dealers?
(10) Could the canvas be sold? Hung in a gallery?
(11) Disposed of in private? Shared?
(12) How did he pleasure his models; what did they say to
(13) Had they been eating together? Drinking? Laughing?
(14) Cajoled into, resistant to, or eager for the act?
(15) Why have the women kept for all these years silent?
(16) Why, hands clasped across each other’s sex, do they now
refuse to shake hands?
(17) Does art follow nature here?
(18) Or the reverse?
(19) Do their wives know this painting exists?
This is not twenty questions, however. The brothers say nothing for minutes. Then they leave.