An Arrangement of Blue and Green
Morgan Kelly knew his wife would be upset with him for losing his job, but he told himself, at least, he would have freedom to paint as he entered his makeshift studio in the garage of their split-level, where the early summer smell bore faint memories of cool water through a garden hose.
He pressed the garage opener and enjoyed the sight produced by the interplay of light, angles, and shadows from the rising door and the two large windows to his right. The garage door view of their neighborhood descending towards White Meadow Lake had been a remarkable selling point—“you could do a second story wrap-around deck,” the agent had told them when they’d moved to New Jersey five years earlier. Instead they’d chosen to install a hot tub on the back deck thinking it would be more romantic.
As Morgan walked towards his easel, he liked the feeling of being a small figure moving against a large panorama of roofs, sky, and sun. The blue-gray roofs defied the varying neutral tones of aluminum siding and rivaled the small green lawns for dominance. The painting he was now working on compelled him to linger over this perspective, searching for a discernable pattern amongst these roofs.
He lifted the paint-speckled sheet from the easel, folded it, and placed it on the old dining room table he’d inherited from his parents when they’d divorced. That his father had left his mother for a younger woman had been a sore point with Morgan. He’d worried over his own marriage vows since the honeymoon period had long passed. Losing his job added more uncertainty. Oily scents of paint and turpentine attacked him as he turned the easel so that the afternoon light through the windows would illuminate the large square canvas. After six months work, the canvas held only a frail idea—rooftops. He knew he would never be a great painter a la Rothko, Richter, or even Hockney, but he loved the texture of paint on his fingers and nails; and the oily smell recalled all the happiest and productive moments of his life.
He blended Ivory Black with Titanium-Zinc White, rehearsing in his mind how he might greet Amy with his new venture. Yes, she would be angry. After all, her salary would only cover the mortgage, car payments, insurance, and utilities. But he’d explain that if things got rough he’d pick up a night shift at Home Depot. He’d massage her shoulders. He’d promise her that he could make dinner, clean the house, and do the laundry. He dipped his Kolinsky flat brush, but before he started to paint, he realized that he’d gotten the colors wrong. He needed to study where he was going and what he’d been thinking the last time he’d painted.
Amy’s new Accord pulled up the drive, and she shot him a quizzical look. She came into the garage, then walked toward the door to the kitchen. “You call in sick again?”
He set down his brush trying to memorize his script. But there was no easy way to tell her. “No. I kinda quit?”
“What do you mean kinda?”
“I was canned, Amy.”
She glared at him. “They got tired of you working from home, didn’t they?”
He walked to her with arms outstretched intending to rub her shoulders, but she raised her hands.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” she said. “I have a migraine. I’m tired. And I bet you forgot we’re supposed to go to the Andersons’ Bali night.”
Morgan only then remembered the invitation. The Andersons had returned from yet another vacation abroad and were hosting yet another throw-it-in-your-face party for all their admiring friends.
“See, I knew it. I’ll be in the Jacuzzi.”
Morgan returned to the easel and closed the paint tubes. As he looked at the gray outline of roofs on his canvas, he wiped his hands on a towel stained by paint, dust, and turpentine.
He walked onto their back porch where Amy reclined, her bony figure surrounded by the aquamarine sprays of the Jacuzzi’s jets, her eyes closed, head back.
“I brought you an iced tea,” he said.
“Just set it down.”
Morgan never painted on the deck because oak trees and maples and the Miller’s house next door crowded the view. He could barely see a sliver of the cascading roofs.
“Looks like waterfalls,” he said.
“Those roofs there. It’s better from the garage.”
“Whatever.” Amy picked up her glass.
“Look, I know what you’re thinking.”
“Do you now?” She swished her ice tea with the plastic red stir stick.
“Look, if it gets bad I’ll go to Home Depot.”
“A master’s degree and he aspires to work in a hardware store,” she said, and she shook her head.
“I still have my 401k and my employee stock. I just think I need to do something for myself right now. Besides, working in corporations is your thing.”
Amy sipped and put her glass down on the wooden floor beside the tub. She put on her sunglasses and said, “That’s interesting, Morgan. But I was thinking how we never go anywhere.”
“Dancing, or vacation,” she said with her face towards him, ghostly oblong reflections of him on both lenses of her sunglasses.
He sat back. The last time they’d danced was when they tried learning the meringue in the Dominican Republic, where they’d met at a Peace Corps party. Then he’d reassured her she’d be able to cure him from “white man’s disease” so they’d always go dancing. Now, he just didn’t care. “We visit your parents in Ohio once a year,” he said.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“It’s us, dummy,” she said.
“You’re the one who stopped taking the pill.”
“And you’re the one who’s afraid of a silly little operation,” she said.
“What if we change our minds?” The vasectomy, he knew, was Amy’s way of trying to bring them together since she’d complained that the pill bloated her. They’d determined not to have children until they were ready, but they hated using condoms. For his part, it wasn’t a fear of becoming less masculine that he shuddered at—it was surgery. Operations meant blood, chemicals, the pissy floor-wax odors of hospital rooms, Grandpa Kelly dying after colon surgery, and nothing at all to do with romancing his wife. Morgan looked through the trees at the rooftops and sky. If he let loose his gaze, they blurred together like a steady, blue-and-green stream. He’d often associated these colors with the Dominican thunderstorms that roiled in with the northeast trade winds, cooled the afternoon’s hot misery of tedious instruction, and misted their cabana with intimate suggestions.
“It’s just a little snip. Besides, Vanessa said Steven can’t tell the difference, you know, when they do it.”
“So says Vanessa,” he said.
“I’m not joking. Besides, we’d be able to do things like we did before.”
“We do things now,” he said.
“Like what? You’re gonna paint and I work. Our life sucks, Morgan.”
Amy went into the kitchen, leaving wet footprints on the deck. He always thought her feet were pretty and well-proportioned like the rest of her body. But in recent years she’d tried extensive dieting, rigorous exercises, for fear, she'd told him, of becoming fat. She returned with a scrub brush and a bucket of soapy water. She set it down next to the gas grill and began cleaning it.
Morgan walked back to his easel and became briefly interested in the composition’s colors and lines. But he knew if he lingered there too long, he’d begin painting, and then feel bad about it while she was cleaning. He walked out of the garage and down to the mailbox. The trees and the sun dappled his walk down the drive with shade and light. He found advertisements for carpet cleaning, brake service, and the phone bill, which he opened as he walked back up. It was slightly higher than normal, so he stopped in a shady patch to peruse the details. Several long- distance calls to Ohio and several to a number for time-shares in the Poconos. She’d told him that it would be a good change of pace and they could always trade with other people—in Orlando, the Bahamas, maybe even Barcelona. He wondered if they were becoming more like those turistas their Peace Corps Dominican friends had complained about. At first, he’d wondered how someone with her cool business sense had ended up in volunteer service. She’d explained that the Peace Corps could be a possible grounding for a career in international business. And besides, her maternal grandparents had gone to some place in Africa with the Methodists so there was a strain of missionary blood in her. As they taught Dominican adults English together in Samana, he saw that she enjoyed helping others. To this day, every Christmas she’d get him to help her with some company benefit like working in a soup kitchen or passing out toys to underprivileged children.
He returned to the kitchen and decided to lay the phone bill on the table so she’d know that he’d seen the charges. He opened the fridge, pulled out leftover Chinese, and heated it in the microwave. Over the steady hum of the oven he could hear Amy scraping the grill, and it made him shudder. Pathetic that they had come to this, he thought. A suburban couple with relationship issues, eating leftovers in microwaves, and cleaning the barbecue. Once they’d dreamed of traveling the world to find new cultures and exotic, out-of-the-way nooks to make love in. They’d been so spontaneous together in the Peace Corps. They’d made up lessons plans for the day’s English class while riding their bikes to work in the morning after having slept on the beach; they’d loaded their Norwegian friend’s Toyota wagon with village kids and driven up to Pico Duarte for a last-minute field trip; they’d slipped out from a Peace Corps mid-service conference to go skinny dipping in a secluded stretch of beach near Punta Cana as it rained. In Samana, his passion for her had led him to discover new ways to paint her. In his portraits of her, he’d switched from representing her in reds and yellows against calmer tones of sky and ocean, to painting her in cooler hues amid sand, rocks, and sun to capture what he saw as her “emotional complexity.” The calmer shades seemed to naturally match her quiet, studious nature in grad school. Some of these paintings had won small awards during their graduate school days at a university in Ohio—she for an MBA, he for an MFA. They’d married before they’d started their programs. Still, they’d made love whenever they’d wanted to since she was on the pill. They’d once found a dark, rarely used corner of the library where they’d had sex after reading from several pages of obscure 18th-century belles lettres between a duchess and her literate, poetic coachman. But the excitement dissolved after she’d gotten her job at Solomon Smith Barney, and within five years it started becoming more about status, high mortgage payments, and something for the future. His design job had focused his creative energies on templates, project plans, and meetings that all worked to diminish his passion to paint her.
The microwave dinged. He went to the fridge and grabbed the last bottle of beer. He walked out to the back deck and sat there eating. He recoiled at how passive he’d become after they’d moved from grad school to New Jersey, neglecting his art and working as a designer at the technology firm where he’d recently failed to convince the vice president that he could just as well design websites and brochures from home as he could from their offices in Holmdel, a ninety-minute commute on an overcrowded highway.
Amy joined him with a salad. She flipped through an issue of a woman’s magazine while they ate in silence.
“Look at that one,” he said. “She looks like a refugee from a worn-torn country.”
She frowned at a figure of a woman in a bikini and looked down at her waist, then turned the page.
“What does fashion matter when you’ve got brains?” he said.
She clucked her tongue. “Typical male. You only say that it doesn’t matter because I’m your wife. Besides, it’s critical for a woman to keep up her image, especially in business.”
She pushed the magazine aside, lit a cigarette, and placed the lighter on the table. “Listen, we need to talk.”
By her tone Morgan knew she meant to pick up their earlier conversation. “We were talking.”
“No, I was talking about us, and you were talking about waterfalls.”
“It was just a comparison. See—” He pointed towards the Miller’s yard, looking through the trees.
“How fabulous,” she said without looking.
“You don’t have to get snippy about it.”
“I’m trying to say that we need to make a decision.”
“You know.” She twisted
her cigarette in the ashtray and waved its final columns of smoke away
with her backhand.
Morgan looked through the trees at the roofs and frowned. “They don’t really look like waterfalls.”
She reached across the table and touched his hands. “It’s just easier for a guy. I mean they just do a little snip. They don’t even have to go deep inside to do it. Besides, you’re the one who’s adamant about never having kids.”
“And like you—Miz CFO wannabe—have time for a family?”
“No. But if we did change our minds, yours would be more easily reversed.”
Morgan rose from the table holding his plate. “What time are we supposed to go to the Andersons?”
“Amy wants to talk and Morgan wants to paint. Dishes need washed and Morgan’s painting. Bills need paid and—”
“Well, I’m not getting snipped for you or anyone. You and Vanessa and Steven can all just go and have a nice time without me. Maybe Steven will even show off his scar.”
Morgan knew she could see through his envy of them. But it wasn’t because the Andersons lived in a mini-mansion, near to real mansions on Upper Mountain Road in Montclair. It was because of the freedom their wealth gave them. Amy had once commented that at least when Anderson worked from home, it was financially advantageous. Morgan thought all he really did was play computer games and let the stock market and his broker do the rest.
Morgan filled in the canvas with more dark rectangles, these in a staircase pattern, gray-blue streaks and off-white daubs hovering above them. He watched Amy, in her teal tank dress that she reserved for semi-business occasions, as she passed by the windows and then into her car. She looked at him and rolled down the window.
“If you change your mind, stop by.”
As her car went down the drive he felt like jabbing the canvas. He reached for the fan brush, dabbed it deliberately into an orangey blend of Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Yellow Hue as if to spite his wife for she hated such brassy colors. Then he slapped it around the center of the painting, forming a thick sun that dripped ginger trails in and around the rooftop staircase. He wasn’t sure he liked that. It didn’t go with the general scheme he’d laid out in his mind. It made the whole painting seem warmer than he’d wanted. He took up a cloth and dabbed that area to diminish some of the garish color. But looking out of the garage, he noticed the amber sundown and decided he just needed to blend in some French Ultramarine to make the sun and streaks more brilliant.
When the colors of sunset became watered down to a tawny and gray mix, Morgan worked furiously to capture the hue and the sadness that it evoked in him. He fell into a rhythm of sights, thoughts, dips, and strokes. The phone rang but he didn’t answer it. A fly buzzed around his ears but he didn’t swat it. After the light waned and the scene turned to night, he set down his brush, stood back, and smiled. He loved what he was doing with the colors that had first seemed a mistake, and this put him in a celebratory mood. He decided to go down to the carryout for a beer. But once in his car, he felt happy and thought since he was out anyway, maybe he’d just drop by the Andersons. He could always keep driving if it looked boring.
As he drove by the homes on Upper Mountain Drive, he felt an urge to pull up to one of the mansions, knock on the door, and ask whomever how was it they could afford to live in such a castle with several acres here in Northern New Jersey. What could an ordinary person like him do to have fate raise him up into such favorable circumstances? He imagined silver-haired versions of Anderson, sitting behind Victorian-era mahogany desks and switching between websites of porn and the stock market on their IBMs.
Though childless, the Andersons lived in a six-bedroom Tudor-style home, with a long drive lined with boxwood hedges. The house, smaller than most on the street, looked almost inviting with its narrow windows lit up and a string of colored lights bordering a small parapet above a portico. Morgan told himself that he wouldn’t go in—that he’d never care about their competitive banter about who the best broker or marriage counselor was—but as he slowed down by the drive, several people noticed him, including Vanessa, standing under the portico. She waved at him, so he pulled into the driveway.
There was an almost palpable smell of wealth in the air as Morgan emerged from his ’92 Honda Civic: freshly cut lawns, rose bushes, country-like air that had rarely known the exhaust of cars lining the Jersey Turnpike. He watched Vanessa, dressed in a floral-patterned sari, point an elderly couple who’d just gotten out of a Mercedes toward the sidewalk that led under the archway and into the back patio. She called him over.
“Morgan you’re an artist-type. How wonderful are these colors?” She held the material of her sari in both hands and twirled.
Morgan smiled but felt a nervous kind of shame.
“Primal, don’t you think? Anyway, Amy’s told me about your painting. You know Steven has a friend who owns a Mid-town gallery. You should talk to him. He’s out back tinkering behind the bar.”
As Morgan walked through the brick arch that joined the garage and the house, he could hear the live piano jazz, the light clinking of glasses, and cocktail-hour voices. In all, about twenty people were either sitting at tables, standing near the piano, or walking about the edge of the long backyard, and as a group, they appeared to Morgan to be rather pleased with themselves. Amy was facing an elderly couple, her hands gesturing as she spoke in that reserved fashion she used for business occasions. She stopped long enough to frown at him for perhaps not changing his clothes. The elderly couple smiled amiably at him. He felt an urge to do something theatrical, to be noticed in his ordinary jeans and T-shirt, to yell that, yes, he was an artist and had just come from a wonderful session that none of them would ever understand. Instead, he only smiled and felt a kind of awkward shame as he walked over to the bar, where Anderson, in black Armani, was just about to blend a batch of something that smelled tropical.
“Hey, Morgan, can you believe this? Vanessa’s got me blending up jungles of bananas and pineapples for this thing.” Behind Anderson were two tables stacked with a variety of tropical fruits.
Morgan turned and studied the pianist, a sexy twenty-something, auburn-haired woman. She wore a burgundy, strapless evening gown, a bit too formal for the semi-casual crowd, but not for the music she played. She seemed more like an artist than a human Muzak machine. He recognized the piece she played, a Miles Davis tune, and he marveled at how generous her feeling was in conveying the same moody benevolence that he’d always remembered in that song.
Anderson set a glass and a can of Foster’s beside Morgan and said, “She’s quite a player, huh? Vanessa’s niece—Clara.”
Morgan took a sip of his beer. “How’s business, Steven?”
“Still looking up.”
“Fascinating. Come on in. I want to show you something.” Anderson turned the blender over to a Hispanic man dressed in a white tuxedo, then motioned for Morgan to follow him.
They walked down a hallway with a high ceiling and entered a large drawing room decorated with antiques, a grand piano littered with photographs of all the famous people they’d met, and a large fireplace. Paintings from various eras, in clashing styles, Morgan thought, hung in gilt frames on the walls. In the center was a round table with several boxes that had been left opened and unpacked. Anderson walked around to where cardboard frame boxes leaned against the table. He carefully pulled out a painting in an elegantly carved red teakwood frame and blew invisible dust from it. “We got this from a native painter. I talked him down, then bought up a dozen or so.”
As Morgan looked over Anderson’s shoulder at the scene, painted in hues of ultramarine, he noticed at once, how the even rhythm of the strokes, portraying small figures working in terraced rice paddies with a volcano looming behind them must have been done by a true artist. But because he found great displeasure with Anderson’s arrogant bartering he said, “I dunno. Looks kinda crappy, Steven.”
“Vanessa thought so, too. I like the colors, though.”
A waiter, another Hispanic man dressed in white, appeared in the doorway. “Sir. Mrs. Anderson, she says, please come.”
Anderson handed the painting to Morgan and said, “There’s more. Go ahead and look through them.”
After Anderson left the room, Morgan returned the painting to its cardboard box. He walked over to the piano, browsing the photos of politicians and movie stars, and he wondered if he and Amy would ever get back to the simple days when just hanging out on the beach in Samana or rubbing each other’s shoulders in the library were enough.
“The one with Harrison Ford is my favorite.”
Morgan turned and saw the piano player standing in the doorway. He felt a lump in his throat.
“I just need to play a few drills.” She walked in, her black heels tapping across the wood floor.
He felt an exuberance just making eye contact with her. He tried thinking of something clever but only said, “Of course, if you hadn’t come in, I’d expected the piano to play itself.” Why was he talking like Anderson? He hated that. He was nervous. He wanted to explain that he didn’t talk like that normally.
She smiled and sat down at the piano. Squeaks arose from her foot testing the tension in the pedals, and then an arpeggio burst forth, echoes filling the room. “Aunt Vanessa loves collecting famous people.” She played a similar arpeggio in a higher key, then another. “You’re famous?” She reversed the arpeggio in descending keys.
“No just a friend of theirs.”
“Oh?” She played a chord pattern and ran the cadence up and then down the keyboard, ending with two muted beats. “I didn’t think they had any real friends.”
“I loved your rendition of that Miles Davis number,” he said. Morgan was now standing beside her, feeling exposed.
“I’m surprised anyone noticed. Aunt Vanessa’s always saying, ‘That’s nice dear—what is that again’ to everything I play.”
“I guess that’s a compliment,” he said.
“Are you one of their very wealthy friends who pretends to dress poorer than they can afford?”
“If I had known, I’d have worn my coat and tails.”
“You don’t seem the type,” she said.
Morgan stepped back to the side of the piano, where he felt safer. “What type do I seem?”
“I like jazz the most,” she said. “But I was classically trained.” She played an intro to a prelude and said, “Bach.” She followed with a quick pattern from a minuet. “Mozart.” She played part of a waltz. “Schubert.” Then she played a rock-and-roll riff. “Berry.”
They both laughed.
“Have you ever heard John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar version of that Miles Davis song you played?”
“No, why? Are you a guitarist?”
Morgan shook his head and said, “It’s just the most preciously arranged, evenly played, cool version I’ve ever heard.”
“Can I borrow it?”
“You can stop by to listen.” He was surprised at his courage.
She looked at the wedding band on his finger.
“I do paintings,” he said. “Do you ever compose music?”
“Once. At Julliard they told me to either play what was on the page or quit.”
“That sucks,” he said.
“Not really. I got to play back up with the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, and I got gigs with a couple of bands in the Village.”
“I’m waiting to hear about a record deal in Seattle.”
Morgan noticed a small scar above her right eye, a small pimple on her left cheek, and he liked her even more.
Vanessa came into the room. “Clara, I thought you were resting. Everyone’s clamoring for dance music. Shall I ask Uncle Steven to just put on the stereo? And Morgan, Amy’s looking for you.”
Morgan smiled, and as he shook Clara’s hand he felt Vanessa’s scrutiny. He returned to the patio, where the atmosphere had turned celebratory. Couples were dancing to the disco music that boomed from the speaker cabinets. A tall waiter who’d summoned Anderson earlier danced his way around tables holding a tray. Morgan turned to see Amy walking up to the bar, stop, and take a drink off of a tray.
He stepped next to her. She sipped her drink and said, “You’ll never believe this. I was talking with Harrison Ford’s estate attorney, and he said they’d been looking to switch over to Solomon Smith Barney. He asked me to come by his office this week. Isn’t that great?”
“Which? Meeting Harrison Ford or getting the new account?” Morgan noticed Clara returning to the piano.
“Well, I’ll probably not meet him, at least not right away. Anyhow. Are you glad you came?”
“Good. I know you are going through a rough time. It’ll work out.”
“So who’s this doctor you wanted me to talk to?”
“Oh, that’s great. I’ll make an appointment for you. By the way, I signed us up for a weekend in the Poconos. It’s a no-pressure thing. They try to get you to buy a timeshare. We don’t have to. But we might as well get a free trial.”
“Ok,” he said, and he glanced over to the piano, but Clara was gone.
Morgan went to the kitchen and switched on the light, filling the room with a tawny glare. He wanted to call Clara, but he was afraid to arouse suspicion with the Andersons. As he munched on leathery pizza, he read over Amy’s itinerary. She’d departed in the company limo to catch a flight to L.A. on her new Harrison Ford account. He’d read her note earlier, feeling a sense of relief that she’d gone, giving them some breathing room. Maybe that’s all a marriage needs, he thought. He re-read the note with amusement, noticing her neat printing, the efficient manner in which she released details, emotions, and advice in short telegram-like sentences:
Coming back to Newark, Continental # 1703, 9pm. Hate flying with them but cheapest business class. Eat well and don’t worry. We’ll have fun in the Poconos. I am happy for you. We’ll work out the finances. Maybe Steven will give us an investment tip. Remember, Dr. Slaker is expecting you around 10 am so don’t be late. Love.
Morgan couldn’t sleep, so he went out into the garage and opened the door. He turned on the light, picked up his brush, and dabbed it onto his palette. It was easy enough to return to fill in the foreground with greenery just a shade darker than the blue-gray roofs cascading above them and that would all serve to compliment the yellow gray of the sun. Amy’s sun. A sun with its faded brightness, somehow darker, and void of its usual lure to provoke his heart. He owed its presence in his painting to that angry splash of crimson. He wanted to know why this Clara, this cool musician, made him feel so attentive of each passing moment like being caught in the thrill of painting. Forgetting all else. But he hoped he wasn’t following in his father’s footsteps. Morgan had captured an angle by imagining he stood in a field, grass growing up to the level of the rooftops in front of him. He could just say they had a mutual interest in Miles Davis music. What if she’d been pretending and not seriously flirting? His strokes were thickly applied; he left a rugged texture in various spots. He wasn’t sure why yet but knew that was how to stumble upon happy accidents. But he didn’t know how to do the same with his relationships and his finances. He regretted not having made more specific plans with Clara, but at the time he’d been too surprised at how well he’d been containing his feelings while showing just the right amount of interest. He stood back looking over the roofs in his painting to see if he’d created the same sensation he’d witnessed that day talking with Amy on the porch about his vasectomy. The roofs still looked too thin. He’d need to scumble them.
Morgan returned from the urologist’s office holding pamphlets with pictures showing the strong faces of happy, confidant men. “There’s no effect on masculinity!” “Microsurgery makes reverse vasectomies possible for many!” He tossed them on the old table in the garage as the phone rang. It was just like Amy to know exactly when he’d be home.
“Morgan, how’d it go?”
“Peachy,” he said in his best high-pitched voice.
“Aw c’mon. Did you go?”
“I’m gonna do it, Amy. It’s simple, like you said. And they can reverse it, though I hope it won’t turn me into a complete conformist.”
“Funny. Did you schedule it?”
“Week from tomorrow.”
“Don’t get too excited. It takes about three weeks before it starts blocking all the little Morgans and Morganas.”
“Listen, I gotta go. I’ll call you tomorrow. Love ya.”
Morgan wasn’t sure that he would go through with it, but he knew how Amy worried when on long-distance trips. She’d be better off thinking he was revolving around her world, though he knew that if he appeared to deliberately mislead her, it would later incite her anger. He himself worried about contacting Clara. Maybe she’d already gone. Looking at Amy’s note again, an idea surfaced, and he dialed the Andersons:
“Hey, Steven. I wondered if we could talk investments. I have my 401k and some stock, nothing big, of course.”
“Nonsense. Every little drop counts. I can give you some ideas. Why don’t you stop by later? Vanessa’s at some Asia Foundation meeting in the City, and Clara’s around somewhere, but she won’t bother us.”
No remnant of Bali Night at the Andersons remained as Morgan pulled into the drive. Morgan walked to the front door and rang the bell. Looking at his reflection in the glass, he fingered back his brown hair.
The door opened to Clara in simple dark pants and blouse, her hair in a bun. He couldn’t wait for an opportunity to tell her how he felt, but at present, he detected little in her demeanor that suggested reciprocity. He chalked that up to the business of the moment.
She sighed, smiled, and said, “Well, are you in or out?
“Thanks.” He walked into the foyer; the large chandelier of prisms in the center caught the light from the skylight. He wondered what Clara thought about vasectomies, about him, about sex.
She closed the door. “Any masterpieces yet?”
“Can’t say. One that I’m on now I’ve spent several months working on.”
“What’s it like, or do I have to be lured up to your dark studio to find out?”
“You’re welcome any time,” he lied.
“Vanessa said you live in Rockaway?”
He nodded. He felt encouraged by her omission of “aunt” because for him it meant she saw him more as an equal to her instead of being lumped in with her older relatives.
“I’m heading out to County College of Morris tomorrow,” she said. “I could stop by at five?”
Morgan smiled. “Let me give you my number and directions.”
He found a pad and pencil on an antique end table near the hall. As he struggled to write only the facts, he imagined himself as a carefree grad student and felt both scared and elated.
She took the note from him. Their eyes met. He soaked in this vision of tiny rectangles of light bouncing around her and streaking across her face.
She put the note in her pocket and brushed back a few loose strands of her hair. “He said to go on back. See you tomorrow.”
Morgan entered Anderson’s office wishing he could fast forward time. Anderson’s advice—about moving the 401K to an IRA first, then breaking it down into various mutual funds—grated on Morgan’s nerves. He had little patience for the mean work of accounting and finance anyway. At last, when Anderson asked him if he had any questions, he answered no, then reached out to shake hands.
“I’ll call if I have questions. Hell, Amy’s better at this stuff anyway.”
“It’s always a good idea to get another opinion.”
The first thing Morgan did when he got home was pull out his sketchbook, shut all the doors and curtains in the garage, and meditate on that moment in the foyer with Clara. Then he worked furiously, sketching fast, angles, shades, noting in where colors might go, warm tones, trying to move between memory and eye-hand coordination. He let thoughts slip in and out as he sketched. He didn’t want sentimentality. He wanted energy. He worked on several sketches. Each time, he began with the hair piled on top of her head. It was two a.m. when he finished.
Around noon when he woke, he felt hung over. He poured himself coffee while listening to a message from Amy:
“Morgan, I’m going to a dinner party later, then dancing. Don’t worry. I don’t have a boyfriend. Anyway I just wanted to say I’m so grateful you talked to Dr. Slaker. And I’m ok with whatever you decide. And I’m proud that you are following your heart. Maybe you can give art lessons. Listen, I’ll call tomorrow. Love ya.” He noticed the softness in her voice and that usually meant things were going well on her trip, but that she also felt some guilt for insisting he visit the doctor. He imagined her telling friends there that her husband was sensitive.
The coffee sprang him back into the moment. He hurried into the garage to look over his drawings. As the door opened and sunlight filled the garage, he felt fear because experience had taught him not to be too trusting on such occasions. He opened his sketchpad and flipped through the pages carefully, expecting to witness a horrendous amalgamation of lines. What he saw was not half bad. None of them could be considered a polished drawing, but he didn’t care because he hadn’t gone for that. What he felt he’d done was render the liberating rhythms of the prisms. Now he needed to get it on to canvas. The phone rang, and he hesitated to leave to answer it, but when he heard Clara’s voice, he rushed into the kitchen.
“Hey, Clara, I’m here.”
“I finished early here and was wondering if I could stop by.”
He put on jazz in the garage and began to arrange his CDs to give the impression that he was a more organized person—for some reason he sensed that Clara would approve of him more. When her BMW pulled up the drive, he acted as if he were cleaning the bookshelf. He opened her door and led her into the garage. “Can I get you something?”
She stood by the easel, “Whatever you’re having.”
He went into the kitchen, opened a bottle of Chablis, then returned with two full glasses. He handed her one and they lightly clinked their glasses for a toast.
She cupped her wine glass in her palms. She stood back, tilting her head, sipping, nodding. Then she pointed at the open garage door. “It’s that scene, isn’t it?”
“I love it. I like how the blues and the greens compliment the sundown colors. What’s it called?”
“I don’t know.” Morgan hesitated.
He walked over to the stereo and selected the number he wanted and they sat on the old sofa, looking at his painting and the scene outdoors it was meant to capture, listening to the rise and fall of a guitar. He held back an impulse to act greedily. He kissed her and let his hand cup her shoulder. He leaned down and kissed it through her blouse. The phone rang, and he savored the smell of wine, paint, and perfume. Over the music, he heard Amy leaving a message. He froze. Clara said, “What’s wrong?”
Morgan sat back. “I’m sorry.”
She sat forward, pulling her top up. “You’ve never?”
“No one but her for the last ten years.”
She picked up his sketchbook and flipped through the pages. “Oh. In the foyer?”
Morgan nodded, scarcely breathing, fearing her criticism.
“You’ve a great memory for detail.”
“It was a perfect moment.” He reached to touch her hand, but she turned to face him directly.
“I should be flattered,” she said.
“Do you want them?”
She handed him the book. “No, keep them. Then you’ll always be haunted by what you never had.”
They sat in silence as the music played on. The amber sun between streams of blue and green glared out at it him from the canvas. He hadn’t painted Amy in years and he felt a tightening in his gut thinking about how she’d ended up in this composition as a small, dark sun. Morgan couldn’t help but notice that he was sweating. In a way he felt as if he’d had sex. What if Vanessa found out? He’d have to tell Amy. And his drawings? He’d burn them.
“How come you never had children?” Clara asked.
“Can’t have a family and have time to paint seriously.”
“Do you really believe that? My god, Picasso, Dickens, Bach—they all had kids running around them.”
Morgan gazed at the roofs and nodded.
“Listen, don’t worry about this. I don’t talk with my aunt about anything real. I mean who can? You’d think they’d be this happy couple with all the money in the world and traveling everywhere, but she heads out to see some guy in Philly every month, and he’s off to the Village every chance he gets to be with his partner.”
“There’s a lot I could tell you about those two. My parents never got along with them, but my damned mother was always saying, ‘They know people, they can help you.’”
Morgan smirked. “Why did he get a vasectomy?”
“Oh that was probably a story Vanessa concocted as a cover. You know, the thing to do, couples are doing it, so the Andersons should. I can’t wait to get out.”
“When are you heading west?"
“This week. And if all goes well, I’ll be settling out there. My boyfriend’s a project manager for Microsoft.”
“Cool,” he said, but he felt his gut pulling at him. He wondered if she was about to make the same mistake that he’d thought he’d made by following Amy to New Jersey. He imagined this talented young woman relegated to giving piano lessons instead of performing in concert halls, and then, he realized he was thinking about himself. It wasn’t bad enough that he’d become like his father, chasing after younger woman, but that he, Morgan Kelly, might spend his days teaching kids how to draw fruit in a bowl or designing meaningless corporate brochures.
Clara stood to go, and he walked her to her car. They hugged. Before she drove off, she rolled down the window and said, “If you ever end up with an exhibition in Seattle, look me up.”
With Amy at his side, Morgan sat watching the night creep in on the valley below the deck of the cottage, deep in the Poconos.
“What do you feel like doing?” Amy flicked her cigarette.
“I don’t know. You tired?” He was thinking about his drawings of Clara and how best to paint them. Maybe that would be safe soon. Had it counted as an affair? To take his mind off Clara, he focused on how shadows buried dark underbrush, the dark contour of water, and how the tiny, almost pathetic lamps sent up weakened rays into a sky full of violet.
“Not really,” Amy said. “Did I tell you I’m getting promoted because of the Harrison Ford account?”
He nodded absent-mindedly while he watched the river seemingly thicken; he imagined a composition of burnt sienna with charcoal to mimic the texture. He noticed, in the shadow of a bend, a tiny horned figure. “Wow. That would be hard to paint in, that little buck down there.”
She sat upright and crushed her cigarette out. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Sorry. I was just appreciating the view.”
“Sunset is great up here,” she said. “Too bad you didn’t bring your paints. This would be a good thing to get on a canvas.”
“Yeah. So you got a promotion, huh?” He wondered if she sensed that he was struggling to care.
“They want me to travel more.”
He looked down and noticed that the buck had disappeared. More tiny lights glimmered around the valley.
“Cool,” he said.
Mark Fabiano's fiction has appeared in
The Long Story and German Village After Dark. He is
currently working on a story collection and a novel. He teaches writing
and literature courses at Columbus State Community College and Keiser
University. His critical and scholarly works have appeared in the
International Journal of Communications, Forum: The University of
Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, The Facts
on File Companion to the American Novel, The Facts on File
Companion to the American Short Story, and other publications. He
lives in Ohio with his wife and daughters.