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Authors: Richard Russo

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But of course I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know I needed help and didn’t
have
a secret, unless it was secret from myself as well. I had only my mother’s word, and Sister Bernadette’s, that something was wrong. Our family doctor believed I was still terrified, but I don’t remember being afraid during the weeks and months that followed my abduction. If anything, the odd serenity I’d awoken with in the trunk, together with the sense of power I’d achieved by making my tormentors disappear, is what had persisted in the aftermath.

It’s true, however, that I was seldom really happy except in my father’s company, perhaps because he alone gave no indication that anything was amiss. His was the diagnosis—judging me safe and sound—that I clung to.

         

 

M
Y MOTHER SAID
nothing to my grandparents about what had happened. Shortly after our move to Berman Court, they’d sold their house and relocated downstate, ostensibly to be closer to my grandmother’s sister, who was ill, though there was surely more to their decision than that. By ignoring their advice and moving into town, my mother had sided with my father, just as she’d done in marrying him, and their moving away was intended to convey that she was now on her own. My grandparents didn’t dislike my father, but neither had they ever made an effort to conceal their opinion that my mother had married beneath her station. There remains to this day in upstate New York a deep prejudice against anything rural, and in our valley the word “farmer” is used to explain everything from uncouthness to congenital idiocy. That my father had grown up on a farm, without city water, indoor toilets or electricity, and that his parents lost that farm to back taxes, ending their lives in the county home, made him, in their view, an unsuitable husband for the daughter of a white-collar worker.

That said, they’d welcomed him—and, of course, me—into their home, all of us living “in each other’s laps” until we moved to Thomaston. Part of the reason my mother hadn’t immediately told her parents about my ordeal was that she hoped to forestall their I-told-you-so’s, spoken and unspoken. Moreover, my subsequent spells and abstractions had convinced her that we needed to move again, out of the West End this time, something we could not accomplish without their help. She had no choice but to swallow her pride.

This was our unstated purpose in boarding the train (back then there was daily passenger service downstate) to go see them. My father didn’t accompany us, the official explanation being that he couldn’t get time off from the dairy, but I think my mother had decided her prospects would be better if he remained behind. I wanted to stay in Thomaston, but my mother insisted I come along because there was no one to look after me when my father was at work. Besides, she needed me as a visual aid. Her task, after all, was delicate. She had to confess about what was going on with me, but in the same breath assure them there was nothing to worry about. Though in the end I’d be fine, right now my doctor was convinced a change would do me good. It wasn’t that Thomaston’s West End was dangerous, as my grandparents had argued, but rather that Berman Court reminded me—how could it not?—of what had happened, whereas in a new neighborhood I’d feel safe. A fresh setting would reinforce what I was being told, that nothing like that would ever happen to me again. I myself didn’t subscribe to this logic because, as I said, I wasn’t afraid, but I knew my mother did. Her certainty on this point made me wonder if it was possible for someone to be afraid and not know it. My mother had, more than once in my young life, suggested that she knew me better than I knew myself, so I supposed it was possible.

My grandparents met us at the train station, and I could tell right away that my mother had explained some of this on the phone, because my grandmother immediately pulled me to her and began to cry. My grandfather just seemed angry and shook his head at my mother, who didn’t take it lying down. “It’s not fair to blame me for this, and you know it,” she told him, even before saying hello.

But if I seemed different to my grandparents, so did they to me. In the time since I’d seen them, they’d grown old. My grandfather had taken early retirement from his job selling insurance, and the ramrod-straight carriage I remembered was a thing of the past. My grandmother, always a slender woman, was now rail thin, and she’d developed a tremor in her hand. We would have to walk home, they told us, since they no longer had a car. My grandfather had been in a minor accident the previous winter, and they’d decided that both the car and its insurance were expenses they could live without. He picked up the heavier of our two suitcases, but a hundred yards from the station had to set it down on the sidewalk and bend over, hands on his knees, to catch his breath. Even with my mother and me carrying the suitcases, we had to stop twice more, and he leaned heavily on my grandmother’s frail frame all the while. They looked not merely ill but scared, as if the world, including their own selves, could no longer be trusted. When we’d all lived together, it had been understood that it was because my parents needed their help, but now I saw, though I was too young to understand this exactly, that we’d provided them with something important in return. They’d weathered the Depression by drawing close, by tightening the inner circle, by trusting that all would be well if the family stayed together. With us gone, they now had one less financial burden, but that wasn’t the way they’d looked at it. Our leaving had rent the fabric, left them somehow vulnerable to a suddenly hostile world.

They were now living in a dark two-bedroom flat not so different from ours on Berman Court. It was stuffed with the big, heavy furniture my grandmother had inherited from her family and couldn’t bear to part with, though there wasn’t enough room for all of it here. Her sister—the one they’d moved downstate to look after—had died several months earlier, and the spare bedroom my mother and I stayed in was stacked, floor to ceiling, with furniture
she
hadn’t been able to part with. The room was so crowded we had to sidle around the bed in order to get in and out. I could see my mother’s spirits sink as it became clear how her parents were living. We’d come in the hopes of borrowing money, but their shabby, overstuffed apartment, together with the fact that they no longer kept a car, demonstrated how little they themselves had.

Over the next few days, my mother would learn why. My grandparents’ move downstate, done in part to punish my mother for her stubbornness, had been even more disastrous than our own move to Berman Court. My grandmother’s sister had died without life insurance, so they’d had to pay for her funeral. Also, though this wasn’t mentioned, they both had been ill, sick enough, in fact, to be hospitalized, she with pneumonia, he with a flare-up of his chronic asthma. The resulting medical bills had so far consumed more than half of the equity they’d garnered from the sale of their house. Realizing belatedly that he’d retired before he could really afford to, my grandfather tried to get his job back but found there was no chance of that. As a result they were now living on their meager social security and trying not to dip into what remained of their savings. They’d gone from a life with few emergencies, unless you counted us, to one in which emergencies were monthly events.

Yet when we boarded the train to return home, my mother had the money she’d come for, enough for a down payment, she hoped, on a modest East End house. She’d not wanted to take it, given how desperate they were already. But I was trump, as she’d known all along, and once that card was played the game was over. She promised, of course, to repay them, and since she’d recently landed another bookkeeping account, she could probably send them fifty dollars a month. My grandmother asked only that we take some of the family furniture to furnish our new home, and my mother agreed, promising we’d rent or borrow a truck and come down for it once we were settled. I think my grandmother knew that “settled” would be defined by my mother, just as she knew the furniture she couldn’t part with was, in her daughter’s opinion, old-fashioned and ugly.

My grandfather died first, a few short months after our visit. My mother again took the train south—I stayed behind with my father—to help with his funeral arrangements. Though he’d sold insurance all his life, it turned out he was himself underinsured, and the additional expense rendered my grandmother virtually destitute, though she declined my mother’s invitation to come live with us. When she herself died a month later, my mother sold the whole houseful of furniture to an antiques dealer from the city, and saw in the man’s greedy satisfaction that she’d been taken advantage of, that she’d failed to see the worth to others of something she herself thought unattractive. Had she undervalued her parents as well? I don’t know that this possibility occurred to her, though I imagine it must have.

The other thing that surely became clear to her as a result of her parents’ passing was that our safety net was now gone. We were on our own.

ALL WORM

 

N
OONAN TOOK
the vaporetto over to the Zattere. There he went to an outdoor café, ordered a cappuccino and waited for it to arrive before opening the manila envelope from Columbia University that Hugh had thrust at him on his way out the door, identical to the one that had arrived that summer and he’d marked
RECIPIENT DECEASED: RETURN TO SENDER
. Not a very good joke, now that he thought about it. Since then he’d turned sixty. His father had died at sixty, and it was beginning to look like sixty might just be Noonan’s allotment of years as well, his troubles no longer coming singly but in…he tried to remember the quotation, what troubles came in when they left off coming one at a time.

The envelope contained, as he’d known it would, material touting the university’s master of fine arts program. A cursory glance revealed that none of the painters, sculptors and visual artists pictured in the glossy brochure were people Noonan knew, but then they were mostly young and it had been a long time since he’d been in New York. As a younger man he’d tried to keep up with what was happening back home and elsewhere in Europe, but sometime during the last decade he’d realized that he didn’t much care anymore. Lately, he even lacked patience for the local art scene. If he accepted Columbia’s offer to teach next year, as Hugh was pressuring him to do, how would he ever summon the energy to learn who in the world his colleagues were, never mind the hypocrisy necessary to feign interest in them? It was dispiriting even to contemplate. His remaining time—the only true coin of any artist’s realm—would be frittered away in the name of collegiality.

But wait. On the academic side of the MFA roster, he did recognize a scholar/critic named Irwin Popov—not a name one could forget—who’d written a long, labored and extremely unflattering review of his last New York show some thirty years earlier, accusing him of crude technique and, of all things, homophobia. Noonan was pleased to note that the supercilious little putz’s career had ground to a halt at associate professor, and his most recent book had been published by an undistinguished midwestern university press. Tenured, Professor Popov was now insulated against professional anxiety, but not, thankfully, humiliation, as evidenced by the handwritten note stapled to the page below his mug shot.
Dear Bob (if I may),
the note began. “You may
not,
” Noonan, half a world away, replied emphatically, causing a nearby table of Japanese tourists to regard him curiously.
Advancing years offer the academic art critic many opportunities for regret. My little review of your show—what? three decades ago?—is one such opportunity, and I sincerely hope that its memory, in the unlikely event you
do
remember it, will not prevent you from doing my colleagues and me the great honor of joining our graduate teaching faculty. Indeed, I look forward to many bracing conversations on the subject of our shared passion with almost as much anticipation as your upcoming show next month.
It was signed “Irwin, the Contrite.” How hard, Noonan couldn’t help wondering, had the department chair had to twist the now-brittle Popov arm to procure
that
smarmy screed?
Little
review? The bloody thing had taken up a full third of the issue! And what shared passion? Did the mean-spirited little twit assume that Noonan, too, was a pederast?

Gathering up the brochure, catalog and cover letter, he shoved them all back into the manila envelope and consulted his watch. Half an hour had passed since he left Hugh alone in the studio to acquaint himself with the new canvases. He’d like them, Noonan knew. It was good work and for once there was a lot of it. In the past Hugh had chided him for laziness, but this time he’d have to find some other grievance. The
Bridge of Sighs
canvas, probably, even though it was unfinished and not intended for New York, or maybe any other show. What Noonan meant by painting it and why he continued to work on it so obsessively were two things he hoped to discover soon. Why his old man, long in the grave where he belonged, should start haunting him now was another. Finishing his coffee, he slipped some euros under the saucer and, placing his palms flat on the table, pushed himself to his feet. The pressure caused a dull throbbing pain in his wrist, familiar, somehow reassuring. He’d been in Europe when his father died, so he had no idea whether the old man had been felled by a single big problem or a legion of smaller ones.
Legions.
Was that what troubles came in?

         

 

B
ACK AT THE STUDIO,
Noonan saw the mail had arrived, so he brought it upstairs and tossed it and the Columbia envelope onto the table next to his bed.

“Noonan, is that you?” Hugh’s voice came ringing down from the studio. “Come up here. I need an explanation and I need it urgently.”

Which meant that he’d taken the bait, just as Noonan had known he would. The finished canvases for the New York show he’d left in plain sight along the studio’s outer wall, where the light was best. The portrait, though, he’d left draped on the easel, knowing full well that Hugh, of all people, would be curious. Childish behavior, he had to admit, wanting the painting to be seen but not ready to show it.

“I need you up here this instant, before I lose what’s left of my sanity.”

Upstairs, his old friend Hugh Morgan, notorious art dealer and international arbiter of taste, was dressed in the professional New Yorker manner—that is, for New York, and not for the place he happened to be just then. In Hugh’s case, black designer jeans, black V-neck sweater and black blazer, as if he’d come to court a Venetian widow. He’d ferreted out Noonan’s small stash of good wine, opened a bottle and, as Noonan had predicted, now stood before the easel where the portrait sat undraped, his expression so full of revulsion that Noonan immediately saw the folly of not hiding the damn thing. Which was not to say that there wasn’t also, he had to admit, a measure of perverse satisfaction.

“I was saving this Barolo, actually,” he said, pouring himself a glass, then reluctantly joining his friend at the easel.

They’d come up in the art world together, having met in London in the seventies, expatriates avoiding military service. Hugh had a small gallery in Soho and gave Noonan his first real show. Later, with the amnesty, he’d returned to the States and opened a gallery in New York, then, over the years, in Paris and Rome. Noonan had remained in Europe, chasing women and commissions and good light—the right balance of conflict and ease—until finally settling in Venice a decade ago. Next month, when he went to New York, it would be his first trip to the country in more than twenty years.

Hugh regarded the painting, the painter, then the painting again. “Shouldn’t you be getting younger?” he said.

“You don’t like it?”

“Well, it’s all worm, isn’t it.” It had long been Hugh’s contention that Noonan’s only subject, regardless of who or what he was painting, was the worm in the apple, the small, off-putting detail that registered in the viewer’s subconscious and undermined the overall effect, the too-pale white spot on the skin that hinted at malignancy beneath. The result, in Hugh’s view, of growing up in a place where everyone was being poisoned, to a greater or lesser degree, from an early age.

“We’re all poisoned at an early age,” Noonan was fond of reminding him.

“‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do’?”

“I was thinking of original sin more than Larkin, but whatever. Anyway it isn’t finished.”

“Are you saying I’ll like it when you’re done?”

Noonan shrugged, then held the Barolo up to the light, squinting at it.

“I mean, Christ,” Hugh said, waving at the painting as if to make it disappear. “Have you titled it? May I suggest
Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer
?
As Burn Victim
? Who paints something like this?”

Caravaggio, for one, Noonan thought.
David with the Head of Goliath.
Perhaps Noonan’s favorite canvas. How long had it been since he’d laid eyes on it, that monstrous, severed head, Caravaggio’s own, still full of rage, held aloft by a weakling for all the world to see? He’d like to see it once more before he died.

“My God,” Hugh continued, “you look like you’re poised to lunge right out of the canvas at prospective buyers. This troubles me, Noonan. I’m sorry, but I have to say this troubles me.”

“Have you ever noticed that when people use the expression ‘I have to say,’ what follows usually needn’t be said?”

“And what is
this
?” Hugh said, ignoring Noonan in his infuriating time-honored fashion, pointing at the dark rectangle on the wall behind the subject.

“A painting,” Noonan explained. “That glint of gold is its frame.”

“I know it’s a painting. Of what?”

“Does it matter?”

“It looks like a fucking gallows.”

It was the Bridge of Sighs, actually, or would’ve been, had Noonan allowed more of the picture into the light. Not that he saw any particular reason to explain. “Then it is.”

“So what’s it
doing
there?”

“I’m sorry. It’s supposed to do something?”

“Oh, stop. You know what I mean. You’re predicting you’ll hang one day? Or saying you
deserve
it?”

“Stop being melodramatic. And where do you get burn victim?”

“That dark stain on the forehead? At the hairline?”

“The birthmark?”

Hugh poked him on the forehead with his index finger. “The point is, you don’t
have
a birthmark.”

Noonan covered the canvas again. “Do you have any feelings about the paintings you were actually supposed to look at?”

Together, Hugh rather reluctantly, they went over to the finished paintings along the wall. Next week they’d all be crated up and shipped to New York. Was it Noonan’s imagination or had Hugh rearranged them? They now sat in chronological order. He didn’t think that was how he’d set them, but who knew, maybe he had.

“It’ll all sell, of course,” Hugh conceded, as if this went without saying. But the “of course” implied a reservation or criticism of some sort, something he’d get around to expressing later, probably over dinner. “You were wise not to commit more than three pieces to that casino.”

“That wasn’t your advice at the time,” Noonan felt compelled to remind him.

“Well, the money was good, wasn’t it. And you needed it rather badly just then.”

“As opposed to now?”

“I’ve often wondered, Robbie, what exactly it is that you
do
with your money.”

Hugh was not alone in this. Noonan, together with his accountant, wondered the same thing quarterly. His father’s military discipline had demanded that a person account for the whereabouts of every bent nickel, which of course went a long way toward explaining the vague pride his son always felt when his own money vanished without a trace.

“You live like a pauper,” Hugh continued with a sweeping gesture, “yet you’re hopelessly in debt.”

“‘Hopelessly’ might be a little strong,” Noonan told him, “connoting as it does a lack of hope, of which I’m never wholly destitute.”

“It
de
notes a lack of hope, actually,” Hugh corrected. “You might as well tell me. Whom do you owe these days, and in what tragic amounts? The girls, I assume. Who else?” “The girls” were Noonan’s ex-wives, who, for reasons best known to themselves, continued to grant him loans. Men generally knew better.

“I’d have to ask around,” he sighed. In truth, his limited understanding of how much he owed pretty much paralleled his vague sense of where his money went. “My only real expense is this place.”

“Don’t get me started,” Hugh said, flummoxed as always by his friend’s militant, self-destructive inertia when it came to finding a new studio.

The Giudecca space had been affordable for most of the decade, but then the Venetian who owned the building, a man with whom Noonan had had an understanding, died and that understanding along with him. His son, having been informed that his renter was a famous painter, immediately quadrupled the rent. A cretin, to be sure, but on the plus side he lived in Milan and seemed not to mind terribly that Noonan was chronically six months in arrears, so long as he paid in cash, income that would never be declared. It was all very Italian. But for the past year Hugh had been trying, with the help of a local realtor, to locate less costly studio space, and Noonan was having none of it. “When I’m finished as a painter,” he said, “I want to be able to throw myself into the lagoon.” Which from the roof of the present studio he could, if he got a good running start. After New York, he now realized, he’d have a better idea of how close he was to finished.

“You
do
know that they’re wetting themselves at Columbia over the possibility of your doing their residency? Did you even look at the material?”

Noonan nodded.

“A nice apartment comes with the gig. Also, I’ve been personally assured you’d have talented students.”

“The worst kind,” Noonan said. “They suck the very life out of you. Unless you tell them to fuck off and leave you alone, and then you feel guilty.”

“When have
you
ever felt guilty?”

“Okay, so it’s a theory, but one I’ve no desire to test.”

“So you’re broke.”

BOOK: Bridge of Sighs
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