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Nude in the Window


Harry Buschman

No one in Parkinson’s Gallery acknowledged her presence. A passing glance perhaps, or if she stood between someone’s line of sight and the paintings arranged on the gallery walls, then they would quickly look away if she happened to catch their eye.

No visitors talked to her that afternoon. She was shabbily dressed – like a cleaning woman at a dress ball. Really! So out of place in Darien, Connecticut, especially here at a retrospective exhibit of the paintings of Simon Hedges.

She carried a catalog which she consulted frequently. She wore a plastic strap on her wrist, showing she had paid the admission fee of ten dollars, and she displayed an avid, almost gluttonous interest in all the paintings.

She was an old woman, quite bent and she shuffled as she walked. In spite of the bitter cold outside she had not worn a proper coat, instead she wore a collection of sweaters, one over the other topped with a black woolen jacket that was closed tightly at the neck with a safety pin. Her sparse gray hair was tucked under a knitted wool cap which she scratched thoughtfully whenever she saw something that puzzled her.

She muttered under her breath from time to time and referred to her catalog. At times she would settle her glasses on the bridge of her nose and her head would bob from painting to catalog and back again. Sometimes she shook her head as though in disagreement in one or the other. At such times she looked about for someone to speak to. This would be the signal for the other visitors to turn away.

Her name was Kate O’Riley, and she was the cleaning woman, cook and lover of Simon Hedges ... in Brooklyn many years ago.

It was commonly known that success came late in the life of Simon Hedges. He struggled like most artists did in the thirties and didn’t reach his potential artistically and financially until late in the century. Most of his early efforts were discarded or lost, therefore this exhibit revealed a scarcity and an imbalance that such retrospective exhibitions always strive to achieve. The appearance of this strange old woman kindled a spark in some onlookers, that perhaps she was a connection with the artist’s past.

The curator and organizer of the exhibit, mingling with the crowd, was acutely aware of the old woman. He decided to question her – she was a potential embarrassment to the gallery on this otherwise successful afternoon. Mr. Parkinson, who owned the heavily mortgaged gallery, was a small intense, and financially stressed artistic director. A few sales, an oil or two by Simon Hedges and the gallery might be able to wiggle its way out of chapter eleven. He wore a chaste black tailor made suit – so tight fitting that no one in Darien, Connecticut other than he would have been able to fit into it.

As if to establish his authority, he approached the old woman, but somewhat tentatively ... from the flank. She was looking at a painting of a woman brushing her hair. As Mr. Parkinson approached the old woman, she seemed to grow taller and more formidable.

“Lovely exhibit, isn’t it Madam. Such a sensitive treatment of the female figure ...”

The old woman was now forced to divide her attention between the paintings, her catalog and now a haberdasher in a black suit. “Was you a friend of Si’s, sonny?”

“A devoted admirer – a disciple you might say.”

“How long ago was that?” She asked.

“The last five years of his life ... while he lived here in Darien. I had the rare privilege of watching him at work.”

“Was he still a pig? He was a pig when me and Flo knew him and that’s a fact. Left his dirty underwear in a heap by the side of his bed – never washed a dish in his life.”

“Really. Well ... artists, you know.”

“Yeah. Me and Flo, we got to know a lot about artists, lemme tell you. He and this sculptor friend of his ... “

“A sculptor? He lived with a sculptor? I wasn’t aware...”

“Lemme sit down fer just a minute, my back is killin’ me?” She let herself down slowly on a leather cushioned bench that stood at viewing distance from the painting of the woman combing her hair. “I come up all the way from Brooklyn Heights on the train. It’s a long trip for an old woman, young man. But I seen your ad in the paper fer this exhibit yesterday. Simon Hedges!” She shook her head in disbelief. “I ain’t seen or heard that name in forty years. There was me and Si and Flo and I can’t rightly remember the sculptor fella ... Archie somethin’.”

Mr. Parkinson’s eyes lit up hopefully. “Was it Archipenko?”

“Beats me, mister, I never paid much attention to him. I had my sights set on Si.” She narrowed her eyes and studied Mr, Parkinson more carefully and silently asked herself ... “Why is this man payin’ attention to me?”

“Tell me, madam ... they must have been wonderful days ... did Simon leave any of his pictures with you ... I mean when he moved on, there must have been hundreds?”

The old woman shifted her position on the bench and looked Mr. Parkinson straight in the eye. “I bet I know what’s on your mind,” she mumbled to herself.

Mr. Parkinson’s eyes darted left and right. He reached in his breast pocket and produced a business card. “If you have anything of Mr. Hedges ... anything at all. You could be a wealthy woman Madam, I promise you. I will pay top dollar ... in cash ... for anything, subject to verification of course. Call me collect ... I will handle all the details.” He forced the card in her hand. She might have been a deranged old woman, but he couldn’t be sure ... it was best to cover all the bases. Suppose somebody else got to her first ... Christie’s or Chelsea’s.

She looked at the card blankly and put it in the pocket of her jacket. “No. There wasn’t nothin’ worth savin’. He just rented a truck and drove off in it. ‘I’ll send you word how I’m doin’ Kate’ he said ... and I never heard from him no more – not once.” She wished she hadn’t come. These people – they looked like a fashion show! What did they know about Si?

She smiled a tired smile in Mr. Parkinson’s direction ... she realized what he was after. The little bastard thought Si might have left some stuff with her. He wouldn’t walk away without leaving something behind him. It’s the way an artist works – they can’t just pick up and go – somethin’ stays. A little somethin’ maybe, but somethin’. She could tell him that in Si’s case it was 48 pastels, 10 books of charcoal sketches, half a dozen oils and more pencil sketches than she could count. Everything of the best years of his life – not this candy box stuff he did in Connecticut ... and there was one oil, a big one, unframed, it stood in a corner of the seedy old apartment. Too big to be hung, it was tilted against the stained wall paper across the room from her sofa. Kate looked at that one a lot ... it was a painting of her, naked, sitting on a stool by the front window.

She remembered hearing him say, “God a’mighty, Kate! Look how they stand up tight and proud and free. Have y’seen Flo’s? Like milk bags on an old Gurnsey cow. And your blessed rump! Your rump is the rump of all rumps, b’God Kate you’re a wonder!

On the train home to Brooklyn, and looking out the dirty window she remembered those days with a clarity that surprised her. Just seeing his name in the paper and on the walls of the museum made her realize how empty life was ever since he drove off in his rented truck. Nobody else ever looked at her the way Si did, nobody ever said she was beautiful. It was dark when she got home and she was worn out ... everything hurt. but she was glad she went. In a way it was like going to see Si again, to see what became of him. He was far less of a man up there in Connecticut than he was with her in Brooklyn, she was sure ... he left the best of his life behind him in Brooklyn.

She stopped in at Papa Wong’s for take out Chinese. It was nearly nine o’clock and only Papa Wong was there, sitting behind the counter reading his Chinese newspaper. He looked up and smiled broadly. “Miss O’Riley! There, you see I been practicing. I used to say O’Lirey ... you’re late for dinner. You want take-out? I got take-out. Where you been all day?

“Hi Papa. I’m done in ... I just got back. I been in Connecticut all day. I’m hungry ... you got shrimp.”

“I’ll stand behind the pork. The shrimp ... I don’t know. I fix you something, some moo goo ... very good. Where is Connetiquette?”

“North of here, Papa. An old acquaintance of mine ... he died up there.”

“So, a funeral. A time for passing. It is a sadder thing here than in the Chinese custom – but then we had less to live for. Maybe it’s different now. Who can say?”

“No, It was no funeral, Papa. It’s hard to explain.”

“You want some soup ... egg drop? There’s some left over. On the house ... or else out he goes with the garbage ... Bon Appetit, Miss O’Riley, may you have good digestion.” He closed the door after her.

Her apartment was dark and cold – the shades had been pulled down all day. She turned up the heat and kicked off her shoes, then set her Chinese food on the coffee table in front of the sofa. She peeled off her woolen jacket and all her sweaters but one, took off her woolen hat and mussed her hair with her fingers. She walked into the kitchen and got herself some chop sticks from the cutlery drawer, then thought better of it, put them back and picked out a fork and spoon ... the clock on the wall said 9:30. Pretty late to be eating Chinese food ... but she had a lot to think about.

Chinese food always made her think of Si. He loved it – nobody else did, but Si loved it, and that’s probably why she was sitting on the sofa looking at the picture of the nude sitting on a stool by the living room window – and eating Chinese food.

... how terrible it is to see me at my best when my best is long gone.

She remembered posing for that picture, hoping she wouldn’t be seen standing there by someone walking by outside and all the while Si saying, “Hold it, Kate. Arm a little higher. Don’t slump! Just a minute longer.” And she’d stand there trying not to slump and ignoring the ache in the arch of her back, and all the time knowing full well that there would never be a time better than this.

If this picture had been at the art show today it would have been a sensation! It would have outclassed everything she saw there, and maybe it should be there. Maybe it’s not fair to let people think Simon Ledger was at his best in Connecticut. Look at that painting leaning against the wall ... no frame, just the wooden stretcher, and the pastels stacked behind her sofa... put your nose down to the paper – you can still smell the fixative. Look at the color, as fresh and clean as the day he sketched her bent over the bathtub scrubbing the dirty ring he left behind.

She reached in her jacket pocket and found Mr. Parkinson’s card. “Maybe I should call him,” she thought. “Top dollar, he said. I could be a rich woman. Maybe it’s not fair to Si, either ... to keep the best of him for myself.”

“Too much for me to figure,” she thought. “If I don’t do anything, nothing will be worse than it is now ... and it’ll be between me and him and nobody else.” There were two fortune cookies from Papa Wong’s on the coffee table in front of the sofa. She broke one up and read the message ...

... “Let there be magic in your smile and firmness in your handshake.”

Then she opened the second...

... “Your many hidden talents will become obvious to those around you.”

“I’m not gettin’ any help outta Confucius, that’s fer sure, he’s just as confused as I am,” She looked at Mr. Parkinson’s card again ... “Parkinson’s” it said ... she didn’t trust him any more than she did Confucius, and at the root of it all, she couldn’t trust Si either. “You ran off and left me here, you selfish old bastard. You never painted me, did’ya ... you painted my boobs and my butt. I was inside all that ... you never saw that, did’ya?”

Wearily she dragged herself across the room and faced the picture of the nude in the window. “You’re all I got left, young lady ... you’re mine to keep.”

©Harry Buschman 2009

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