Authors: Richard Russo
Quite possibly, and perhaps even relevant. Still…“Then there’s the IRS. If
discover I’m in residence, the bastards will garnish my wages for back taxes.”
“If they discover you’ve visited, they’ll take your gallery sales, as well,” Hugh pointed out, not unreasonably.
“They’re worried about terrorists now, not painters. Anyway, I think I’ll stick to the original plan.”
In and out in two days. An art day, with the obligatory Brie, overchilled white wine and endless obsequious introductions, until it all became insupportable and Noonan ducked out the back and into the nearest tavern for some serious drinking, then a diagnostic day, a full battery of tests at Sloane-Kettering before the very next flight back to Venice with no one the wiser, leaving the victim to await the reviews, sales, blood work and possibly biopsy all by himself. Exhausting even to contemplate. The plane out would be the worst of it, strapped into a seat, while trying in vain to anesthetize himself with free booze in first class—thank you, Hugh, for this, at least—and overcome the rising panic in the aisles, probably crawling out of his skin by the time they touched down. What if this experience was so bad he couldn’t summon the courage necessary to board the return flight?
Feeling the dread rise, Noonan turned, half expecting to hear himself declare that he’d changed his mind and to hell with the show, but Hugh wasn’t there. He’d gone back across the room, where he’d again undraped the painting on the easel. “Why paint something no one will ever buy, that’s what I’d like to know. It’s lunatic. You should stop painting this. I mean it. In fact, I forbid you to continue. Let’s burn it right now, shall we?”
Like all art dealers, Hugh believed himself to be an integral part of the creative process. As if it would be foolish for any painter to embark on new work without first conferring with the man who would later sell it. He didn’t really want Noonan to stop painting it, of course. Though unfinished, it was still the best canvas in the room, and Hugh had to know it. Even as he suggested the painting wasn’t salable, he was busy coming up with a plan to do just that. What he was really after was the story behind it. People who bought art at these prices were hungry for back-story, gossip they could repeat to their friends. Here, Hugh could explain, was one of Robert Noonan’s final canvases, begun when he’d first become aware of the illness that would eventually kill him. Ka-ching!
Talk. Vital to commerce. The end of art.
“Okay, I’ll stop,” Noonan said cheerfully, draping the canvas again.
Hugh didn’t believe this for a second, but of course pretended to, clinking Noonan’s glass with his own to make it official. “I can see why you didn’t want to share this. It’s excellent.”
“I was just wondering if it was corked,” Noonan said, holding the wine up to the light again. After so many years of working with chemicals, his sense of smell and taste had been blunted, though lately, for some reason, both had become annoyingly acute, and the list of foods to which he was suddenly averse had grown very long. Not true, alas, across the sensory spectrum, the intensity of his orgasms, not to mention their frequency, having radically diminished of late, a piss-poor trade-off.
“You’re joking. I wish you had another just like it.” Hugh allowed his gaze to fall directly on Noonan now, something he’d been careful not to do since he arrived. “So. How much weight have you lost?”
“Pounds, I couldn’t tell you. A couple belt notches.” Three to be precise. “Not all bad. I was getting fat.”
Hugh looked serious. “And these night sweats?”
“Night terrors, actually.” Suddenly wide awake at three in the morning, wild with rage and fear at he knew not what. So bad these last few months that he’d become nocturnal, painting by night until exhausted, then wandering the predawn streets and sleeping during the day.
“I have an idea,” Hugh said, as if he’d just discovered a foolproof cure. “Let’s dine at Harry’s.”
“That’s the same idea you have every time you visit,” said Noonan, relieved that the health issue could be tabled at least for the moment. Even though they were old friends, he disliked having such conversations with Hugh, who was by nature and profession a gossip. If his recent weight loss hadn’t been dramatic enough to make him look gaunt, and if Hugh didn’t have a physician’s eye for medical detail, Noonan wouldn’t even have mentioned it. “Dolce is right here on the Giudecca. Same owner, same menu, same food. Cheaper, too.”
“I prefer Harry’s.”
“You mean being
“Can I help that?”
“Yes. People can help things.”
Hugh cocked his hip provocatively. “Really? What things can people help?”
“Okay,” Noonan conceded. “Not so many things.” Not sexual orientation. And not cancer, if that’s what the weight loss and night terrors were about.
“A person could choose
to paint gallows, I suppose,” Hugh said, still looking at the draped canvas. “That much I grant you.”
He obviously wanted to uncover it again, which told Noonan everything he needed to know and confirmed what his gut had been telling him for weeks. The pleasure of that knowledge put to flight the last of his dread, as in the end pleasure always did.
Troubles come not singly but in…what?
at Harry’s, Noonan’s least favorite restaurant in Venice, he nevertheless found Hugh already ensconced at the bar, surrounded by young Italian men and holding court in his flamboyant Italian, which was, in fact, far more fluent than his own. “I’ve had a perfect bitch of a time saving this table,” Hugh informed him in a perfectly bitchy, insincere tone as the maître d’ snaked them through the crowd of diners toward the most perfectly ostentatious table in the room. “Tell me, do you ever dress up?”
“Sure,” said Noonan, who was wearing threadbare cords, a clean button-down denim shirt, a bulky sweater and boat shoes. “Now’s a perfect example.”
“I’m starting with the squid ink risotto, and you should, too,” Hugh announced once they were settled. “I can’t believe it. There’s absolutely no one here. It’s tragic.”
Noonan understood that by “here” Hugh meant Venice, not the restaurant, which was full. And by “no one” he meant celebrities.
“There wasn’t anyone on the plane either,” he continued. “Everybody’s still scared to fly.”
Noonan snorted. “Afraid to fly, but not to live in a nation governed by an idiot.”
“A duly elected idiot. This second time, anyway.”
“Let’s not talk politics,” Noonan suggested. In addition to Italian, Hugh spoke fluent liberalese, which Noonan would’ve found tiresome even if he hadn’t long suspected him of secretly voting Republican. “My stomach’s iffy enough.” Lately, that sour taste seemed to have moved onto the back of his tongue, yet another “trouble” to find out about in New York.
“I’m just the opposite. I’m like Audrey Hepburn in that movie with Cary Grant,” Hugh said, his logic, as always, a quarter turn off. “The worse things get, the hungrier I am.”
“It’s true,” Noonan agreed. “You
like Audrey Hepburn.”
When the waiter came, Hugh ordered his squid risotto and Noonan the pasta
which elicited from his companion yet another personal observation—that he both dressed and
like a peasant. To save further embarrassment, Hugh decided they’d both have the
and instructed the waiter to be certain that he, not his guest, got the larger portion. “Will I know it’s a sea bass and not a sardine before I taste it?”
The waiter assured him that he would.
“I have my doubts,” he said to Noonan, sotto voce, when the waiter retreated. “The Mediterranean is fished out. What they serve on this side of the Atlantic is hardly worth the effort of boning. Still, as long as my portion’s bigger than yours, I suppose I’ll cope.”
Noonan broke off a hunk of bread. “How’s Lady Brett’s new work?” Anne Brettany was Hugh’s other Venetian client, and he’d spent the morning at her studio in Santa Croce.
“Well, Anne is forever Anne, isn’t she?” Hugh sighed, as if this were regrettable. “She thinks she’s still in your shadow.”
“She shouldn’t. She’s good.”
“She says the reason I always visit her studio first is that I’m saving the best for last. When I ask how she’d feel if I came to see you first, she says then I’d be taking my clients in the order of their importance.”
“You could’ve invited her to dinner.”
“I did, and she accepted. Then she found out you were coming and suggested lunch instead. Over her fourth Prosecco the poor dear got maudlin and confessed she still thinks the two of you should be together.”
Noonan couldn’t help smiling at that, imagining skittish Anne trying to manage him in the throes of one of his bull-in-a-china-shop night terrors.
“She’s between lovers, and you know how that makes her.”
“I’ll fuck her anytime she likes, if that’s her problem.”
Their first courses arrived at that moment, and Hugh used his hands to help waft the aroma of his risotto up to his eager nostrils. Hardly necessary, from where Noonan sat. Dead, rotting fish. His stomach turned over.
“Tell me,” Hugh said, “do you really enjoy being an asshole?”
“Yes,” Noonan said. His pasta and beans looked prechewed by some earlier diner. “It’s one of the few things I do enjoy, anymore.”
“You and she are both going to be pleasantly surprised at the kind of money this new work brings. People are beginning to buy art again. Not everyone’s, but they’ll buy you. Anne will have to work harder, but then
not averse to hard work.”
“Here we go,” Noonan said, pushing his bowl away, the food barely touched.
“Well, would it kill you to come to New York a week before the show? Do one or two interviews—don’t look at me like that. Just the important ones, go to a couple of parties, allow yourself to be seen at the Four Seasons, that sort of thing? Maybe get a mention in ‘Talk of the Town’?”
“Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me I misbehave in public?”
“In this instance misbehavior might not be so bad. It’s been a long time. You still have your fans in the city, but a lot of people have forgotten what a bad boy you used to be. You could insult someone of my choosing. It wouldn’t even have to be a new act. Your usual boorish routine would suffice to remind people of your vulgar origins, that dreadful little burg you hail from. Tanneryville.”
“Create some buzz, is what I’m saying.”
“God, you exhaust me. Less than twenty-four hours you’ve been here, and I swear I could sleep for a week.”
“Your problem,” Hugh said, his teeth and lips stained black with squid ink, “is that you think selling’s beneath you. You’re always in Tintoretto mode when you should be thinking Titian. Now
a fellow who knew how to network. He had emissaries in every court in Europe, and they weren’t pushing Venetian art either. They were pushing Titian.”
Noonan leaned forward across the table so he wouldn’t have to raise his voice. “The thing about Titian? He was Titian. And those paintings they were ‘pushing’? Titians.”
“Fine. You’re not a careerist? Then do Columbia. Just paint and teach and forget the rest of it.”
“Why? What possible reason could I have for leaving Venice? I’m getting more work done now than I did when I was forty. You saw for yourself.”
“Yes, I did, and what I saw convinced me you need to clear out of here for a while. And don’t go throwing up your hands. When you returned today, I bet you didn’t even notice I’d rearranged your canvases.”
So, Noonan thought, he’d been right. “I did, actually. You put them in chronological sequence.”
“Well, that’s not the organizing principle I had in mind, but it doesn’t surprise me. I rearranged them so they went from dark to darker to darkest.”
“Your point being?”
“And the darkest of all is that Dorian Gray number on the easel. One whole side of the face is in shadow and let’s not even go into that thing on the wall, which we shouldn’t be able to see, after all, given the light source.”
“It’s the Bridge of Sighs,” Noonan said, expelling a sigh of his own.
“Oh, I feel
much better knowing that. It’s not mortality that’s troubling you, the possibility of a bad diagnosis. No, you’re identifying with criminals making their final journey from the court to the dungeon, from which only death can free them. Thanks, that really cheers me up.”
“It’s a good painting.”
“Good painting, bad painting. Who cares?”
“What worries me isn’t the quality of the work. It’s that the painting is a lie. The rage, the self-loathing staring out from behind those dead eyes, that isn’t you, Robbie. I’ve known you for a long time, and you’re far from a saint. Truth be told, you’ve never been anything but a pain in the ass, but the face in that painting isn’t yours. For better or worse, you’ve always been honest. You’ve painted what you saw, and if
what you’re seeing, something’s very wrong.” Hugh was staring at him, black lipped now, a rather gruesome sight, actually. And it was his turn to lean toward the center of the table. “I almost hope you
have cancer. Most cancers are treatable.”