Authors: Richard Russo
“You’re in trouble, Noonan. I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on you. Your friends know it, too.” He paused here to let this sink in. “You’ve become a recluse, and don’t pretend you haven’t.”
Noonan snorted. “Who told you that? Anne Brettany? Please.”
“You may be interested to know Anne said nothing, even under direct questioning. And you know how skilled I am in that regard.”
“Who, then?” Noonan said.
Hugh seemed to be weighing whether or not to reveal his source. “The only time anybody’s seen you in months, you were sobbing uncontrollably in some church. In the middle of the bloody afternoon.”
Madonna dell’Orto, to be precise. Noonan remembered the afternoon. And now he knew who. Todd Lichtner, the prick.
“And another thing,” Hugh said, on a roll now. “When was the last time you punched somebody?”
“A long time ago,” Noonan said, pleased to be given this opportunity to prove his mental health. “I can’t even remember, it’s been so long.”
“Exactly,” Hugh said triumphantly. “I mean, what have you been for your entire life? I’ll tell you. You’ve been a provocateur. A goad. An insensitive brute. At times a bully, a total dickhead. But here’s the thing: it’s always
for you. Every time you got into a rut, whether it was a marriage rut or a work rut, you’d find somebody to piss you off, promptly break the fellow’s nose, pack your things and move someplace new. And your very next painting would be great, your rut a thing of the past. Now? You’re crying in churches. It’s like all the fight’s gone out of you.”
“I’m closer to breaking
nose right now than you appear to realize,” Noonan said, his wrist throbbing in anticipation. He expected Hugh to blanch at the threat, and so was surprised when instead Hugh leaned forward and offered his chin.
“Do it,” he told him, and unless Noonan was mistaken, there were tears in his eyes. The room had gone quiet, and the other diners were watching expectantly. “Be a belligerent. And don’t tell me you don’t remember how, because we both know better.” Grinning now, each tooth grotesquely ringed with squid ink.
“Go look at yourself in the mirror,” Noonan suggested, bringing his companion up short.
Noonan shook his head. “Nah, I’d hate to ruin the surprise.”
It was a full ten minutes before Hugh returned from the men’s room, his teeth gleaming white again. In his absence, Noonan had finished his pasta
the food suddenly tasting good. Could his friend be right, that the very idea of punching someone in public had improved his appetite?
The other diners had all gone back to their meals. “Battalions,” Noonan said when Hugh sat down.
“I beg your pardon?”
It had come to him when Hugh was in the gents. Troubles come not singly but in battalions. Suddenly his spirits improved, along with his appetite.
When the sea bass was served, the larger portion was placed in front of Noonan, who gleefully dug in before the plates could be switched. Hugh just glared at him, finally saying, “So, are you going to tell me about it or not?”
“Tell you what?” Why he’d been crying at Madonna dell’Orto? That was the question Noonan had been expecting, and he was prepared with a glib answer. There were two damned fine Tintorettos in that church. Good enough to reduce any painter worth his salt to tears.
But what Hugh said was “What are you
To that question he had no ready response. Still, Noonan was surprised to hear himself respond honestly. “Right this minute? Every little thing.”
ND, STRANGELY ENOUGH,
not the big thing. He wasn’t—Noonan felt quite certain of this—afraid to die. If he had cancer, well, he had cancer. If it was treatable, then, as Hugh said, he would treat it. Cancer just was what it was. You weren’t obligated to assign any meaning to it, especially if you hailed from Thomaston, New York, where the stream that meandered through town was a different color every day, thick with dyes now acknowledged to be carcinogenic. If it
cancer, he reflected, there was a kind of ironic symmetry to it—to have fled his hometown so long ago and never looked back, only to be felled in the end by some long-dormant, mutated gene.
Sure, cancer, if that’s what it was, would mean fewer canvases when he’d have preferred more, but a decade hence, at seventy, that would still be true, as it would again at eighty. Nobody ever got enough, but if this was it, Noonan wouldn’t feel cheated. He’d never imagined he’d be long-lived, nor did he particularly feel he deserved to be. There was no law that good painters got to live longer than bad ones or, for that matter, lawyers. He had little to complain about.
Okay, so forget cancer. It was the bouts of uncontrollable grief, even more than the occasional night terrors, that scared him. That mysterious sorrow, its source unfathomable. He was simply grieving. But for what, he couldn’t say. Had some internal switch broken, slipping his emotions off their tether, out of their natural context? If so, why just sorrow? Why not joy? He hadn’t had any sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming attacks of that. Or jealousy, or lust, or shame. One minute the grief wasn’t there, the next it was, rising in him like nausea. The afternoon in dell’Orto he’d seen Lichtner coming toward him up the Fondamenta della Sensa, but by then Noonan was already lost, utterly overcome. Pretending not to hear the man call his name, he’d ducked down a narrow
and hurried into the church, where he’d knelt for nearly half an hour before Tintoretto’s
The Last Judgment,
waiting for the waves of ridiculous, comic sorrow to subside. He knew from experience they eventually would, just as he knew he’d be left exhausted, mystified and, yes, frightened.
While he knelt there, the church’s front door had opened several times, flooding the somber interior with soft light, but it hadn’t occurred to Noonan that Lichtner had followed him inside. How long had the little putz observed him? And since that afternoon—what, five months ago? more?—how many people had he told about the incident at how many dinner parties and in what dramatic detail? He’d probably made a parlor game out of it. “You’ll never guess who I saw sobbing his guts out in Madonna dell’Orto last week. I’ll give you a hint. A local painter.” Everyone would play along, of course, and the guesses, by the time the pasta course had been cleared, would have become increasingly far-fetched, until someone finally said, in disbelief, “Don’t tell me it was Noonan.” And Lichtner, triumphant, “All right, I won’t tell you, but that’s who it was, nevertheless.” “Beneath
The Last Judgment,
you say?” one of the women at the table would offer. “Oh, I
like that. That’s lovely. Who says there’s no justice?”
“I’ve been telling you for months he’s losing it,” the hostess of the party would chime in then, and if Harvey Bellows was there, he’d recall how one morning, on his way to the Ferrovia at four-thirty, he’d rounded a corner and practically run into Noonan, who offered little more than a grunt for greeting or apology, hurrying off into the Venetian night as if the devil himself had been after him. Where could he have been coming from or going to at such an hour? Not the airport or the train station, the wrong direction for either of those; besides, he hadn’t had any luggage. Probably visiting some married woman. Most of the women at the dinner party would have been married, and odds were good that at least one could testify from personal experience to Noonan’s prowess in this regard.
The Last Judgment,
” that first woman would’ve repeated. “I
like that.” Though she wouldn’t say why, not with her husband sitting next to her.
At any rate, by now the tale had probably reached across the Atlantic. Venice’s expatriate community of wanderers—writers, artists and visiting academics—was tight-knit, and Noonan could imagine how swiftly the story would have traveled. It also explained why, though he’d done his best to discourage it, Hugh had insisted on coming right before his show in New York. His excuse had been that he was worried about Anne, who was high maintenance, no doubt about it, so Noonan hadn’t doubted him. Now it appeared that he himself was the true object of Hugh’s concern. And maybe even
wasn’t the worst of it. Maybe Hugh hadn’t really wanted to visit at all. Maybe he’d just come to find out if Noonan was in any condition to proceed with the show. Having heard that something was wrong, possibly from a number of different sources, he’d decided to find out.
Declining Hugh’s halfhearted offer of a nightcap at his hotel, he returned to the Giudecca at loose ends, having drunk too much to work but wanting to work anyway, and not knowing what he’d do with the night if he didn’t. Undraping the portrait, he studied his father. Had he admitted this to himself before tonight, that the figure on the canvas was his father? He’d begun the painting a month earlier, as a self-portrait, then realized they were his father’s eyes, not his own, looking back at him. In retrospect, reason enough to quit right then, but he hadn’t. Over the next few days he found himself emphasizing the physical features they shared, minimizing those he’d inherited from his mother, marveling that as he did these things the man in the painting somehow became less his father and more Noonan himself, as if by subtracting his mother he was arriving at his own essence. The process wasn’t unlike telling a police sketch artist “I think his nose was a little wider,” except that he was making suggestions to himself that were based on distant, not recent, memory. He’d added the birthmark last, on a whim, the final damning detail, though for the life of him he couldn’t decide which of them it damned. Nothing about what he was doing made any sense. How could giving the figure the features of one man make him more recognizably another? Was he losing his mind or going someplace new and exciting, where no other painter had ever gone before? Would the result be art or just creepy exhibitionism?
This, he now realized, was surely why he’d wanted Hugh to see the canvas. And his reaction—that the painting was a lie—was, in a sense, exactly what Noonan had hoped for. I am
my father. Yet hadn’t Hugh, his old friend, recognized it as a self-portrait? The possibility that the man in the painting could be anyone other than Noonan himself hadn’t even occurred to him.
been right about one thing, though, much as Noonan hated to admit it. Given that the left side of the face was in shadow, what was over his left shoulder—the painting within the painting—shouldn’t have been illuminated. Normally, there was nothing Noonan was more conscious of or meticulous about than light. How had he missed something so elementary?
“I don’t know,” Evangeline confessed. “How
you miss it?”
Intent on the canvas, Noonan hadn’t heard her come in. Or, for that matter, realized he’d been speaking. “Hey,” he said, trying to cover his surprise at her sudden appearance. She was dressed for the gallery, which, to judge by the time, she’d probably just closed. It had been a slow year, and she was staying open later. What he couldn’t quite decide was whether he was glad to see her. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Or call up the stairs?”
“I guess not.”
She came over to where he sat, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed the top of his head. When, he wondered, had he become the kind of man a woman could sneak up on?
“How’s the Great One?”
“I assume you refer to Hugh?”
“No offense,” she said, “but yes. I see you broke out the good wine.” The empty Barolo still stood on the table next to the easel.
“He doesn’t think I have cancer.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed. For what it’s worth, neither do I. You’re losing weight because you forget to eat.”
“He thinks I’m depressed. Suicidal, even, except he didn’t say that exactly.” He’d come pretty close, though, over the zabaglione at Harry’s. When Evangeline offered no response to this weighty diagnosis, he said, “Whereas
“I think you’re just fucked up.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Thanks. That’s as close to a vote of confidence as I’ve had all day.”
“People just slip into funks,” she said wearily, as if she knew firsthand whereof she spoke.
“So this is just a phase I’m in? I wait for it to pass?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, Noonan. I really don’t.”
“That’s the difference between you and Hugh Morgan. In the almost forty years I’ve known him, he’s never once used that particular phrase.”
She came around now, unbuttoning her silk blouse. “That’s just one of the differences between us,” she said, letting the blouse drop to the floor and sitting down gently on his lap.
he claims,” he said, indicating the portrait, “is a study in self-loathing.”
Kicking her shoes off, she used her big toe to rotate the chair a quarter turn so she, too, could study the canvas. “Well, it’s true you won’t be accused of narcissism.”
She’d seen it before and, like Hugh, assumed it was a self-portrait, though if she’d been repulsed by it, she never said so. And something else now occurred to Noonan, that his father, near the end, had apparently gone batty in his solitude. The neighbors reported hearing him inside the house, cursing at no one in particular, or perhaps everybody. When he did emerge, his hair uncombed, his shirt untucked, his fly unzipped, he always managed to give the impression it was only a supreme act of will that prevented him from punching everyone he passed on the street. When people tried to engage him in conversation, he just glared at them, as if he didn’t trust himself to utter so much as a single syllable for fear that the dam would burst and swamp them in a torrent of abuse. Which made Noonan wonder. Late in life, long after he was gone, did his father also suffer episodes of inexplicable grief, or night terrors? And what would the cause have been? Something originating in the Cayoga Stream? Could it have been the
? If so, in what sense could anybody truly be blamed for anything?