Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Nine of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Derry, Vermont

“Well, you said yourself you weren’t as cold as you thought you’d be,” Marianne said, in a tone suggesting a tacit admission of having gone somewhat beyond the touchline.
“That was a ‘Curate’s Egg,’ darling.”
Novak and Marianne were driving back down Route 100, toward the Papineau property, after an eventful afternoon.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“The mention of a small part that was good but not nearly good enough to redeem the larger whole that was … extremely bad,” Novak was emotionally exhausted into a kind of calm. “Irony, I’m afraid, from having lived too long among the British.”
“Well, you carried off your contribution like a professional. You’ve seriously never done that before?”
About being sat motionless in room temperature, Novak had imagined having a body temperature considerably below normal, far enough under normal to result in certain, shall we say, diminishing … abnormalities.
He had awakened that morning just before the sunrise as always. He normally dozes, hugs his pillow for a few more luxurious minutes before stumbling to the bath in the partial light. He has no set routine with his toilette. Sometimes he does everything right away, other times he goes to the kitchen, lets the dogs out, feeds the cat, guzzles a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and prepares a strong, dark coffee.
Novak had never become a morning tea person. What’s more, he no longer used the acronym ‘O.J.’ for orange juice ever since, you know, O.J. Simpson and everything. When Novak had left America in 1981, Simpson was something of a household name in a benign-to-good way, except for his useless acting performances. The majority of those familiar with the man most likely thought of him as a gifted and accomplished athlete to admire as well as something of a rather goofy but harmless clown who took himself slightly more seriously than was called for. No better and no worse than, like, a Joe Namath or Wilt Chamberlain or someone. You have to hand it to him, though, for not disposing of his estranged spouse in the predictable way with a handgun like so many seem to do. Think about it. The guy dressed up in black like a cat burglar and fucking rang the doorbell. How eccentric is that? He probably managed to work in one last bitchy argument to get his points across before going off like Lizzie Borden. Crass? Maybe.
So, orange juice, the fresh-squeezed variety. In England, that means shipping the fruit up from Spain pronto and, in a perfect world, having a purveyor that squeezes the fruit into his own containers. Novak, former Valencia resident, had a student at Wolfson whose father, an Irish fella, is an importer in Lower Lynwood and member of the Soil Association. His guys squeeze the oranges, all organic, all inspected, bottle the juice themselves and lorry it over to, say, Cheltenham, Gloucester and other major points of west country trade. Novak gave him the number of a little market he frequents a few kilometers from Blockley in Mickleton (yes, home of the world-famous Pudding Club), and now Sean and Twylah Brady, props., carry his beloved juice, his life-affirming nectar.
As Novak had expected, the Papineaus keep a very nice juice. Not as expected, he woke for the third consecutive morning next to another adult person. Other than having his little girl in bed with him, which mostly stopped when she reached adolescence; then happily picked up again recently, Novak would estimate that ninety percent of the time in the last twenty years he has slept alone. Not since living with Marianne all those years ago, has he experienced sleeping through the night with a woman without something of an intimate nature necessarily having occurred between them. Well, of course, he admits, there have been spurts (sorry!) of minor relationships involving platonic or at least sexual incident-less type sleepovers involving himself and various degrees of fascinating females (all of whom he claims to have admired in one way or another). But, for the most part … all right, you get it.
For Novak, waking next to Marianne was, well, it was bizarre. They didn’t actually have sex on the Tuesday night, her parents having returned from the city. Granted, a lot has happened in their lives since 1988. But looking over and seeing a head with what is clearly Marianne’s hair on it, resting on the pillow, and her shoulder … her perfect, perfect shoulder … caused Novak to feel as though just a few months had elapsed since they were a young couple.
“I don’t feel forty-four years old,” he had remarked to Marianne as they lie together. “You certainly don’t look forty-three years old – whatever that’s supposed to look like.”
He had to be careful here.
“I don’t feel like we’ve lost twenty years, in that way,” he continued perilously. “Though I understand that we have.”
The sex had been a bit mad. All the refreshing, climactic bits that are supposed to happen happened – extraordinarily so. But, again, it was mad and not exactly tender and loving, though there was some of that. Mostly, though, the two appeared to be trying to prove to the other that each was the greatest lover this side of the Humber. Novak believed ‘tender’ would eventually follow. In fact, he was quite confident it would.
Roger had walked into his house ahead of Joanna, having just come off a four-hour drive, strode over to Novak, bellowed “C’est magnifique!” and practically lifted the 200-pound man off the ground with a hug and a double-double cheek kiss.
Novak had peered over at Marianne, whose look implied, ‘I didn’t say a word.’
Evidently, the whole family was in on what was happening. Isabel, as we know, was adamantly lobbying for it, as well as scheming with her grandmother. But what if it hadn’t happened? What if Novak had quailed and not taken the leap -- out of his famous stupidity?
What if Marianne had said, “That’s very sweet of you, Julius; but, seriously, have you taken a knock on the head?”
This was heady stuff all right. For once, in his personal life, he had successfully (or so it seemed) assessed a situation and acted appropriately and, there can be little question, demonstrably. Luckily as well, Novak felt OK, not ashamed, at having slept with the man’s daughter in his house for the first time since he’d had all his hair and didn’t require reading specs. Roger Papineau kept referring to Novak as ‘my boy,’ which was nice.
“I do love the guy,” Novak had said to Marianne while her parents unpacked. “I love the whole family. You still scare me a little, but … “
“I know,” she smiled. “C’est la vie.”
And he was, honestly, right to be scared, if you want to know. All those years ago in Cologne, Novak thought he wanted to be part of her art clique, hang around her pale, waifish friends with the henna-colored hair and tattoos (before absolutely everyone had them); leather jackets, Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop wannabe, deranged Europeans clinically attached to cigarettes, Soviet chic and wild, anarchist fantasies. Even the normal-looking ones of her set were deceptively severe, quietly suicidal or secretly dangerous.
They just don’t think like the rest of us, these artists. Something has gone horribly wrong in their minds or never was right in the first place. Defective from the start.
Otherwise, how else to explain why, after having asked Novak to sit nude as an artist’s model for her donated, ten-person sculpture class, she would then (in the mad belief that it was some kind of good “art” idea) open the class up to her artist acquaintances who also were directing classes in watercolor, oil, pastel, woodcarving, and, for all anyone knows, fucking party balloon sculpture? And wait until the drive over before telling the first-time model?
Was Marianne trying to deceive her soon-to-be-again … whatever he was? Was she playing a cruel joke? Was she one-upping him in some hostile way? She thought like an artist, you know, clothing the ideal in a perceptible form and all that rot. She broke somewhat with her classical and realist and emotion-laden mentors. Perhaps too much Ezra Pound in her spare time, but who’s to say?
And, frankly, the enormity of what was about to take place didn’t immediately sink in to Novak’s conscious mind. He can be a bit thick – something about being a university professor most of his adult life. You’ve read the studies.
He didn’t even realize or ask why they were driving to the sculpture class. Wouldn’t he have known or assumed to know that Marianne had been, up to now, conducting these little amateur sessions in the family studio up in the remodeled Gourlie-Papineau barn, where Bill once parked his Case 500? Why then the change of venue? And where exactly were they going?
“Flood Brook School. I’ve invited a couple of very talented artisans and their protégés to participate, and I was afraid there was not enough room in the studio.”
Are you kidding me?”
“No. It should be quite good. My friend Neda, the fabric artist from Shaftesbury, said she’d bring two interns from Taiwan in residence at her farm. This is what we do around here.”
Are you kidding me?”
“Relax. It’s just art.”
“But … I agreed to be nude.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Uh … being a little bit nude in your cozy, family studio, where I’m mildly comfortable and being very much nude at a grammar school with the forty-three presidents staring down at me are two slightly different propositions … Marianne.”
Pas du tout.”
“Not at all, my aunt!!”
“Are you feeling not O.K. with this?”
Novak could only think that she had him by the artistic balls, cosmically so. The inner calm he had spent his entire adult life nourishing and harvesting had flown.
“I’m … no. It’s … bahhh, just, you know … pfff … I just, uh, need to work myself into a, sort of, Left Bank … mentality. I’ll … I’ll … “
“Would you like to smoke a joint?”
“Absolutely not! Tell me you’re not carrying drugs. Can we stop for a beer?”
“You’ve already had one. And we can’t have you needing to pee while you’re sitting there.”
“Oh, you’d rather I hallucinate?”
Marianne ignored that and imagined the artistic space and possible poses and placement. They entered Derry proper. Novak sat at the junction of Route 11 before turning toward Bromley. They were less than five minutes from the school. Marianne’s perfectly tranquil face looked as though the two merely were driving to the store for milk.
They just don’t think like the rest of us, these artists.
“This is going to be very cool, Julius darling. I’m actually excited. I feel a little like a … regisseur or something.”
“Believe me, I’d be happy to wear a tutu.”
So, one would think Novak might have been chilly and … not … himself, sitting there in front of, actually, far fewer unfamiliar faces than he’d had good reason to expect. He had mentally prepared for the small handful of cackling hens from the village whom he’d met on the street on Saturday afternoon. He rather honestly dreaded being naked in front of those women – art or not. In the few minutes Marianne provided him to digest the reality of what awaited him, he imagined an additional two or three, maybe, sober and detached students of art. Real pros, dedicated only to their craft and the higher calling of beauty. They wouldn’t see him naked. They would see what was there:  a model. Therefore, he figured, other than gazing off into the middle distance at some pre-selected point on his eye’s horizon, he could key in on the few legitimate imaginers of the beaux-arts technique – Madame Papineau version.
From the evidence of the standing-room-only crowd in Ms. Brennan’s third grade classroom at Flood Brook Union School, however, the verdict could only be that every single novice artist and would-be arbiter of taste in Windham and Bennington Counties – and several people with nothing better to do just pulled in off the street -- were on-hand to see Marianne Papineau’s former boyfriend naked.
Novak’s first thought upon entering the impromptu studio space and removing one of Roger’s spare robes was, “I wish I’d made it down to Greece a couple of weeks ago for some sun.”
He was at least relieved that he had had next to nothing to do with these people during his time visiting Marianne’s family. To say that, up to now, his behavior, vis-à-vis the year-round residents of southern Vermont, had been aloof would be to understate the case. In the twenty-five years he’d been coming to New England, Julius Novak had breezed through the local populace with little interest in adding new relationships or even acquaintances. If the Papineaus were suspect, Novak was even more so. A pompous professor at two of the world’s most celebrated universities who used to be some kind of soccer star? Well, that’s what they heard.
To be sure, Vermont now had its fair share of idiosyncratic celebrities and downright bizarre overachievers from nearly every field of endeavor looking to hide behind ski goggles and be made invisible by wearing muck boots, Carhart work pants, Ibex fleece vests and driving Toyota Tundras with their dog in the front passenger seat. You know, everyone from Treat Williams to L. Paul Bremer III. But this whole soccer star knocking up that Papineau girl (who’s too good for everyone) and continuing to come around and lord it over us like we’re the ones who are beneath him … well, I don’t think so. Not in our village green.
What a turnout.
There was Gene, one of the post office clerks, who’s always reading the New York Post when customers stand there waiting for their oversized items that require a signature. How does one go from finding intellectual stimulation in a front page news story -- about a Long Island teenager-son-of-a-mafioso accused of driving with a car door open and a passenger vomiting out a window -- to the brushstroke contemplation of a serene row of haystacks in a meadow at the break of day? A legitimate debate in the future, on the art theory front, might center around whether Julius Novak sitting there in his birthday suit, was more ‘The Thinker’ by Rodin or rather a vulgar piece of reactionary propagandist commentary by Ralph Peters.
If there were gasps at the moment of his undraping (there were!), then Novak could not hear them for his ears were temporarily afflicted with a dull buzz. Besides, he was just trying to be professional.
Marianne walked over to him and set him contrapposto, not unlike Michelangelo’s David, most of his weight on one foot so that his shoulders and arms twisted off-axis from his hips and legs. She handed him a long, wooden staff to hold against the carpeted floor of the riser with his left hand, as though he were someone escaping from a nudist colony by hiking through a forest. Or perhaps he was meant to be a shepherd in an isolated tropical region. On a more practical note, Novak thought he might use the prop as a weapon if one of those horrid women attempted to touch him.
One of the women from the village, a frequent participant in local theatre productions, would appear to have brought her twelve-year-old daughter. What the hell could Novak possibly do about that? He had to remain largely motionless, as this little middle schooler glanced surreptitiously at his private parts.
Internally frantic and sickened, he darted his eyes around the room, like, ‘Is anyone going to do anything?’ Apparently not. The gathered artists and others carried on molding their lumps of clay and drawing with their little pastel crayons and chatting, while a pubescent child is potentially warped for life by being made to sit in public not ten feet from a strange naked man.
‘This is not art,’ Novak fretted. ‘It is an exhibitionist public spectacle.’
Were these people so far out in the middle of nowhere that moral civilization has been left behind? Yes, this was Vermont. And until that day, Novak had not allowed himself to imagine the minister from the local Methodist church, Reverend Steele, an amateur oil painter. In another setting, such a realization might have been refreshing.
Afterward, since Novak opted not to make himself available for Q&A, he attempted to sneak out the back hallway to the staff parking lot through which he had entered with Marianne ninety minutes earlier. Just as he was about to turn a corner toward a side door, Novak heard perfectly loud female voices belonging to two of Roger and Joanna’s neighbors from Winhall Hollow – Erin Naismith and Betty Tuttle. They weren’t even attempting to be discreet.
“Well, what did you think?”
“I’d heard he was supposed to be some kind of athlete. I was expecting Bruce Jenner or something.”
“Reminded me of walking in on my fat Uncle Ted in the changing room at the Chappy Beach Club.”
“I could have done with some more clay.”

Back in the car on the drive home to South Derry, Marianne took Novak’s right hand as it rested on the gearshift.
“I’m sorry about what those ladies said. I don’t know how they got in there. People like that just completely miss the point.”
“Mm,” he shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I should have kept it to myself.”
“Nonsense,” Marianne was irritated. “They were talking out of their asses. It’s unacceptable.”
“No, Marianne, it’s art,” Novak kept an eye on the curving road ahead. “It’s open to interpretation.”

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