Fiction - Autumn 2019

Sin

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“It was enough that I was there, mutely listening as he recited his sorrowful dreams, or spooled out what he called his misgivings, his guilts, his remorse.”

By Cynthia Ozick | September 3, 2019
Detail from <em>La grande odalisque</em> (1814)by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail from La grande odalisque (1814)by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (Wikimedia Commons)

By the last week of April, the parking lot’s long chainlink fence already bristles with its hundreds of attachments: coiled wire, duct tape, butterfly clips, boat hooks, coat hangers, pellets of industrial glue, nylon strips, braided strings, and whatever other contraptions stubborn ingenuity can dream up. Elsewhere, there are the uptown galleries, discreet and sleek as salons, with their Japanese pots on polished lion-pawed tables, and the walls behind them hung with small framed paintings ratified by catalogs signaling critical repute. And of course the grand museums
with their marble stairs and broken-nosed Roman busts in halls mobbed by foreign tourists. —Well, so what and hoity-toity and never mind! With us fence daubers, it’s catch-as-catch-can, whoever happens to pass by, and it’s smelly too, because of the pretzel man’s salty cart on one end of our sidewalk and the soda man’s syrupy cart on the other, and always the sickening exhaust from the cars grumbling every half hour in and out of the parking lot. And the hard rain, coming on without so much as a warning cloud to shut down business for the day, and all of us scrambling to cover our merchandise with plastic sheeting, which anyhow the wind catches up and tangles and carries away, along with someone’s still life.

I call it merchandise. I don’t presume to call it art, though some of it might be, and our customers, or clients, or loitering gawkers, or whatever they are, mostly wouldn’t know the difference. As for us, we’re all sorts—do-it-yourself souvenir peddlers (you can pay a dollar to coat a six-inch plaster Statue of Liberty in silver glitter), or middle-aged Bennington graduates in jeans torn at the knee who speak of having a “flair,” or homeless fakes, soused and stinking and grubbing for coins, who put up pages cut from magazines, or part-time coffee-shop servers self-described as art students. With the exception of the sidewalk chalkers who sprawl on their bellies, indisputably sovereign over their squares of pavement, we are warily territorial. We are all mindful of which piece of fence belongs to whom, and which rusted old folding chair, and who claims the fancier plastic kind swiped from outdoor tables set out by restaurants in the good weather. And there are thieves among us too: if you don’t keep an eye out, half your supplies will disappear, and maybe even your wallet.

I am one of those art students, though it’s been a long while since I stood before an easel staring at a bowl of overripe pears while trying to imagine them as pure color and innate form. This was happening in the Brooklyn studio of my mentor at the time—mentor was his word for it—at a fee of $75 per session. He had a habit of repeating a single, faintly sadistic turn of phrase: what I needed was discipline, he told me, and as my mentor he was naturally obliged (the meanly intended clever laugh came here) to be my tormentor. I had an unhealthy tendency toward literalism, he explained, which it was his responsibility to correct. He regarded himself as a disciple of the legendary Philip Guston, but only in his early period. After three months or so, I couldn’t bring myself to believe in the Platonic souls of pears, and besides, my uncle Joseph in Ohio, who was subsidizing those pears even while under the impression that I was learning fashion illustration, was coming to visit the Avenue A walkup I shared with a Cooper Union engineering student and his girlfriend. Joseph had taken me on as a good deed after my stepfather died. He wasn’t exactly my uncle; he was my stepfather’s brother, and he was proposing, along with attending to some necessary business in New York, to look me up to see how I was doing. I saw then that the flow of money was about to dry up—the money for my tormentor and the money for my half of the rent: the engineering student was soon to graduate and marry and start a job upstate. Within two days Joseph flew back to Cincinnati, betrayed.

“Goddam it, Eva, you’re a goddam orphan,” he threw back at me, “and look at you, cohabiting with a pair of degenerates, and those imbecile oozings piled up in that dump, you’ve played me for a fool—”

He hadn’t believed me when I told him that the study of swirls and random swipes was a prerequisite for fashion design.

Joseph’s sloughing me off left me nervous: fences can’t supply steady cash the way uncles do. Still, I knew I wasn’t meant for the garment industry. Only a year ago I had been blissfully in love with the pre-Raphaelites.

I began to wait tables from seven to midnight at La Bellamonte, an Italian restaurant down the street from the fence. And it was I who carried off two plastic sidewalk chairs, one for the portraitist (this was what we called ourselves), and one for the sitter. It was good to be literal—to work up a reasonable likeness—though not too much. For portraits, a bit of prettying was always preferable. Beginning about May, when the weather warmed up, straight through the middle of October, the money was reliable. I would charge according to how my sitter was dressed, though I was often wrong. I was amazed by the vanity of what I took to be, from the condition of their shoes, the poor: they were willing to pay as much as $5 without giving me an argument, and sometimes I just tore the sheet off the pad and handed it over for free. Of course I sold what I could of the stuff I hung on the fence: these I splashed out quickly, between sitters—fanciful birds on branches, Greek-shaped vases overflowing with flowers (I had a botany book to copy from), invented landscapes, some with mountains, some with lakes. If there were lakes, I sketched in a boat with French lovers in old-fashioned headgear, huge feathered brims for the women and top hats for the men. From the local pharmacy, one of those acres-wide brilliantly lit warehouses where you could find anything from cheese crackers to lampshades, I bought cheap wood frames and painted them white. This gave the pictures on my three yards of fence almost a look of settled elegance.

Weekends, Sundays especially, are our busiest time, when people stroll by with their sodas or dripping popsicles (there’s an ice cream vendor one block over) to watch the portraitists at work. For onlookers like ours, a portrait is an event requiring the courage to decide which of us to choose, and a certain daring even to submit to a 20-minute sitting, surrounded by all the public kibbitzers who comment on the process, whether this person’s nose is really wider than it’s been shown, or taking note of a wattle that’s been brushed away. Generally the crowd works itself up into a mood of untamed but not unfriendly hilarity. Yet sometimes it will be cruel.

It was cruel to the woman in the blue suit. She was not unfamiliar. I had spotted her yet again when, on the third Sunday in a row, she turned up, gaping with all the others circling round my easel. The weather was unusually hot for a late August afternoon coming on toward evening, and the baking pavement, with its crackle of pretzel crumbs, was still burning the feet of the pigeons; they were hopping more than pecking. Or else they were sated. As for me, I’d already counted $152, more than enough for a single day’s work, and was beginning to pack up the little it was my habit to take away for the night—brushes, paints, botany book, easel (the folding kind). The paintings I would leave where they were. I threw a worn tarp (pilfered from a car in the lot) over my part of the fence and with a piece of narrow rope knotted it through the gaps in the steel. What if rowdies came and ran off with my landscapes and flowers and boats? I would deem it a compliment, and anyhow I could readily splash out a few more.

By now many of the gawkers had dispersed, and the pretzel and soda men were long gone. But the diehards were still milling on the sidewalk, with bottles in paper bags bulging from hips and armpits. The woman in the blue suit was among them, cautious, attentive. Watchful.

As I was maneuvering the easel into its carrier, she called out, “Not yet, not yet!”

“Sorry,” I said, “I’m just leaving, I can’t be late.”

“Why should I care, I’ll take my turn now. I don’t like it with that riffraff all around. So now.”

“Sorry,” I said again. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? Then maybe next time? Or instead”—I lifted an edge of the tarp—“you could take home one of these, I’d let you have this one for half the price. A scene on the water.” It was the feathered brim and the top hat.

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