The building had originally been used for a shop, Gray decides as he walks through the entrance. Equally, though, it might have been intended for some public service, a small library, for example, or a doctor’s surgery. Around twenty pictures occupy the walls. He knows immediately that the paintings are bad. He can’t immediately say how he knows this: Gray’s knowledge of art is not that strong. One shows a cat perched upon the back of a pick up truck. Chicken wire, a chicken grazing near a flattened tyre. Another shows a naked woman in a bath tub. The scene shows her body from above, the vast pale pink expanse of her flesh partially obscured by the soap scuffed water. The conception of the scene is appropriate, but the form of the figure looks to be unintentionally pinched by the bath tub.
Gray walks onwards, taking in a still life of a sauce bottle (‘Henry’s Grandma’s Sweet Homemade Catsup’) next to an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. The paint has been thickly layered upon the canvas, daubed with something smoother and less defined than a brush; for some reason, he thinks of the plastic cutlery he ate with on the plane. Men, old men in pastel-coloured short sleeved shirts and baseball caps, walk from the doorway of a building which might be a bar. It occurs to Gray that it is the bar of the town, and he lingers a while in front of the canvas trying to identify it.
He is still standing in front of this picture when the woman enters. She steps underneath the arch at the far end of the room. She wears a long red covering, which Gray cannot decide is a dress or a robe. Underneath she wears grey leggings, a pair of fat white trainers upon her feet. Bangles of plastic or resin clatter upon her wrists. Her hair is a mane of unruly curls. She is overweight. She had been heading for the entrance but visibly starts when she sees Mitchell.
‘Hello. I hope you’re enjoying the pictures,’ she says. She possesses that effortless indiscriminating politeness so common to certain Americans, a levelling and demotic sense of decency.
Gray thanks her.
‘I don’t want to intrude.’ She stands, smiling at him, her gaze almost unblinking, cherishing. ‘So. I want ask what you think, it’s what I always want to ask the visitors. But I guess that really is intruding. I can’t help it. We get so few visitors, that I, well, I’m just ready to cherish them when they appear. Can I get you a drink of water?’ When Gray declines the offer, she points back over her shoulder. ‘I’ve got a Coke in the fridge. Or perhaps I really should leave you alone. I am sorry. I have to ask. Why is someone like you…’
‘You’re English.’ When Gray acknowledges this, she nods her head, her expression one of seriousness and awe. ‘I have never travelled to Europe. I have often wanted to. To see the paintings, the buildings. The culture. I am in love with the idea of all that history. My father fought over there.’ She gestures to the front of the building, and Gray realises that she means the old man by the door. ‘Nineteen years old. He still can’t talk about the things he saw. The horrors. Dead children. Towns burning. People lined up and shot by the side of the road. He was only a boy. What were you doing when you were nineteen?’ Gray goes to speak but the question was only rhetorical and the woman cuts him off. ‘Me? I was a rebel. Drugs and men. I added to the poor man’s problems. I had issues that I had to process. It was a time I am not proud of, but which contributed to where I am.’ She glances away from Gray, at the walls surrounding them, at the works mounted under lights.
‘But I do regret what it did to him. This man who had picked up dead children from the side of the road, had lain dead children out as though he was putting them to bed. How can you perform operations like this when you are nineteen years old and move on? It’s a weight that you will always carry with you. I wasn’t able to understand. Through his sufferings I had my opportunities. We all had our opportunities. You more than anyone can understand this. You English. In Europe, I think, you know what the United States did for you. I am just glad that I was able to make things up to him.’
She pauses, her eyes moving from Gray to the pictures. ‘Well. There I am. A chatterbox. Can I ask you what you think?’
Gray has been expecting the question. He has already prepared for it. While she has been speaking he has realised that the woman has painted the pictures, that she is both artist and model of the vast nude in front of him. While she speaks, he glances back at the nude painting. The veined fleshiness of her thighs. The wild black curlicues clotted with froth between her legs. The nose that is not an accurate representation. He compliments the woman upon her style and subject matter. In Europe, he says, artists have grown bored and self indulgent, to the extent that they have lost the desire to paint. So, personally, Gray explains, he finds it impressive to find that such a willingness still exists. It is primitive, of course, but the imperatives of a cycle are such that a return to primitivism is necessary, otherwise decadence triumphs, which is only the gilded covering for destruction.
The woman is quiet and Gray thinks he may have offended her. That his praise, so obviously overblown, has appeared mocking and sarcastic. ‘It is powerful for me to hear you say that,’ she finally says. ‘I want to thank you for your words. Sometimes, it is difficult.’
She pauses as though expecting Gray to agree, but he has no idea what she means. ‘Difficult?’
© Daniel Bennett