“HOW DO YOU want me, honey?” Her sultry voice an invitation, regardless of the intent.
A purple scarf trails a raised hand and skims her back as she dances naked around the bed. The scent of Patchouli oil hangs heavy in the air. I’m standing just three feet away, but there’s no eye contact between us, because getting lost in the music is part of the process. My job is to stay out of the way. Both of us know it’s important she relax before we begin, and today it’s BB King lamenting a lost thrill that’s doing the trick. Prue’s generous hips sway in rhythm. They lack the firmness of ten years ago when we first met, and her breasts rest lower and fuller. Only the head of curly cinnamon colored hair and the matching rug remain unchanged. She’s like a juicy peach a week past the peak of ripeness, showing inevitable decay but still delicious. Arguably the sweetest it’s ever been. A body imperfect to some, but not to me. Every dimple that took the place of smooth skin, and even the little fold of flesh that drapes her waist has become what’s visually interesting.
But what sets her apart most is she’s at home in this shell. Comfortable in fifty-five-year-old skin, a rare self-love shines through. You see it in her soulful green eyes. And that’s why she’s made for what we do so well together. The morning sun streaming through the window behind the bed highlights her as she twirls. There’s no false modesty here or attempt to cover. It wouldn’t occur to either of us to hide what’s most interesting to look at.
“Get on the bed. On your stomach,” I say, interrupting the show, “Have Louise join you.”
She stretches out atop the rumpled white sheets and pats the spot next to where she lays. Before her hand slaps the mattress twice, my Jack Russell terrier is there. Pulling the dog close, fur against skin, she covers her friend with kisses.
“Who’s Prue’s boo boo?” she coos.
Her biggest fan barks an answer and offers a stomach for rubbing, all four paws pointing to the ceiling. I move the ladder to the end of the bed and climb barefoot to my wooden perch six feet up. Shelves of recycled art books form the backdrop, bindings so worn they barely hold pages together. I take a hard seat, one leg bent high so I can support my sketchbook.
“Okay. Grab the treats and the book.”
Both know the drill, stop their play, and settle. She removes the items from the iron bedside table and nestles the bag between her breasts, hidden from my view. The dog has his eye on the prize, ears up, knowing good behavior will be rewarded if she can stay still long enough.
“You’re reading your favorite book. Let’s try a few poses,” I say.
Pulling up the leather bag attached to the mid rung, I take out my cell, pad, and charcoal. This is the right perspective, an aerial view of the scene. Perfect. Prue moves from one pose to the next, holding each for ten seconds or so. I watch and wait, looking for that sweet spot where angle and composition are most riveting.
“That’s it, right there.”
My cell captures a shot of the scene. She’s leaning on an elbow, seemingly lost in the novel. The right side of the book peeks out, and Prue’s fingers are gracefully poised to turn the timeworn page. Her legs are crossed at the ankles. It’s funny because Louise’s legs appear to mimic the pose. And although the dog is focused on the bag of treats, it looks like she’s riveted by the book. That’s a happy accident.
“Try not to make the dog move,” I whisper.
All three of us remain silent for the next fifteen minutes while I sketch. That’s how long it takes Louise to reach her limit and let loose with a loud bark. It startles us both from our concentration.
“Poor girl! Let me give her a treat, Oliver,” she begs when begging isn’t necessary.
“Give her two.”
My Jack Russell understands English, so she bounces around the bed in anticipation.
“Pose for me,” Prue commands sweetly.
The dog leaps onto the back of my naked muse and stands perfectly still, head lifted as if she’s just reached the top of Mt. Everest and the photographer’s about to snap a picture.
Two tiny bones are offered, and Louise jumps off and claims her prize. Is it weird to feel a kind of pride that your dog is such a character? It’s not like I had anything to do with her intelligence or nature. But I love the little shit, and I’m her human, so I guess that gives me some bragging rights.
“Mr. Magoo’s watching again,” Prue says without a hint of surprise.
I look up to see my neighbor standing at his window across the alley. We busted him dead to rights, but he doesn’t give a flying fuck. There’s a frozen blank expression on his face, like a live version of the cartoon character. He’s short and bald and wears the same kind of black horn-rimmed oversized glasses. His pants are high and his posture poor. He’s old. There was never a response to my waves, so I quit trying.
“I haven’t see him with anyone. You’re his entertainment,” I say.
The sad truth. It freaks me out because that could be me in fifty years, minus the armpit-high trousers. I can’t imagine that ever happening.
“Let him look. I’ll throw the guy a bone,” she says, offering her nakedness as a kindness.
“More like a boner.”
Looks like Magoo’s pockets are deep and he always has his hands inside. Not sure what’s going on in there. Maybe just memories. I start down the ladder, returning my pad and charcoal to the bag.
“That’s all for today. I’ve got a class.”
“I’m free later if you want to do more.” She turns over then hesitates. Sitting up, she slowly shakes her long hair against her back. All for Magoo.
“Fifteen minutes is what I can afford this week. I need to save you for the painting.”
The old metal frame creaks and moans as she rises from the bed. Finding her dress on my counter, I toss it to her and she slips it over her head.
“Your sister?” Her brows furrow with genuine concern.
It’s a relief to know someone other than family understands Grace’s problems. I’ve told Prue more about my sister than any other friend.
“Yeah. My parents are short this month because of the therapy.”
The ladder’s folded and returned to its rightful place while Prue tracks down her things.
“Would you ever consider dancing again? You made some good money, didn’t you?” she says slipping into her worn blue rubber flip flops. Her question followed by a funny version of a male strip routine to the song playing in the background. For the big finish, she grabs her imaginary dick.
My death ray stare finds its mark. “No. That’s not an option.”
“I’d love to give you a freebie, Oliver. But my situation is almost as bad as yours.”
“I wouldn’t expect it. I sold a piece last week and they may buy another. I’m okay.”
There’s surprise on her face but who can blame her? I haven’t sold many paintings lately.
“I’ve got a few figure bookings too. In fact, I’ll pass your card on to George Martin. That’s who I’m posing for today,” I say, checking the charge on my cell.
“Lucky you. I’ve heard he pays well.” Plopping down on the arm of my couch she rummages through her purse and finds her house key.
“He used me last month at NYU, today it’s at the Wainwright,” I say.
“Well, he must have liked what he saw. He’s notorious for never using models twice.”
“Maybe he wants to bone you. Was he looking at your junk?” she says perfectly seriously.
“Didn’t notice and don’t really care, as long as I get paid.”
She takes a few beats, tilting her head to look at something that interests her. “You better let me cover that hickey on your neck before you go. What are you, twelve?”
“Shit. You kiddin me?” I say searching for a tender spot with my fingers.
She stands and pulls my hand away. “Stop touching it! Now you’ve got charcoal all over your neck!” Her raucous laughter fills the room. Digging in her purse for concealer, she pushes for details. “What’s the story? Have you met someone?” There’s a hopeful tone to her question.
“No story. Just a hook up.” I bend my head and move my hair out of the way so she can get to it.
“You need a good woman.” She dabs as she talks.
“For what?” I balk at the ridiculous statement.
“For the fun of it. Aren’t you interested in romance?”
“I’m not talking soulmates. I mean kicked in the ass, white knight romance.”
“And maybe I can bring my princess back to the castle. Can you imagine being with a guy who lives like this?”
“Money’s not everything. You’ve got a good heart. You’re hot. That’s what matters to women.”
“Are you speaking for your entire sex now?” She surveys her work, nods in satisfaction and ignores my sarcasm. I make my closing argument. “It’s more important that I figure out how to provide for my sister. Eventually it’ll be my responsibility. What woman would be willing to take that on if they didn’t have to?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but Prue doesn’t have an answer anyway. Her expression says she’s scrambling to offer me some hope.
“I gotta go. We’ll not talk about this later,” I say, giving her a peck on the cheek
She looks around the room at all the unsold paintings hanging floor to ceiling and the ones leaning against the walls. “You know, Oliver, before I leave let’s consider this. What about you give me a painting in exchange for my modeling services? I’m willing to bet it’ll be worth a lot more in the future than it is today.”
“It’ll be an investment for me. A retirement account growing in value,” she says like it’s an actual possibility.
I bring her head out of the clouds. “Or one that never pays you a return. I’ve been at this for a decade, Prue. If it hasn’t happened yet it probably never will.”
I faced the truth long ago, but it still stings to say aloud.
“Stop that. I believe in your talent. You can have all the time you need for the one we started today, and the next one too. In return you give me that one.”
She points to the twenty by thirty canvas hanging over the front door. It’s one of her I did eight years back. In it she lies in a bathtub covered with water halfway up her body. I’ve always considered it one of my best and I planned to keep it. It’s hard enough to sell a favorite painting, but to give it away is another level of hell. Dante needs to add a circle. I stay silent, considering my options. The painting’s worth much more than the fifty dollars an hour Prue charges. But the five hundred it’ll save me per piece will pay for therapy sessions and Grace’s meds for two months. And maybe this next painting will sell quickly. And soon after that I expect pigs will fly out of my ass.
“I’m okay with that trade,” I lie.
A look of joy crosses her face, which dulls the pain for me. “Ty will come over later and get it.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Her face glows with the topic. “We met last weekend at the Concert In The Park. He’s sort of young and kind of homeless, but so cute. God, he’s got these incredible eyes. He’ll be staying with me for a few days. Just till he gets his new place. I don’t know, but I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”
She laughs at herself, and I join her. Because both of us know she has a good feeling about all of them.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” she says, throwing her hands in the air.
“Nothing hopeless about you, Prudence.”
After she leaves I take a long look at my painting. It’s about to hang in a new home, one floor down. Let it go, Oliver. I grab my jacket and the apple off the kitchen counter. If you can call a plank resting on stone blocks a counter, and a microwave and a mini frig a kitchen.
“I’ll be back, Louise. Guard the estate.”
She stays looking out the window but gives me a dismissive humph in response. She’s watching for the return of Mr. Magoo. As I lock the door behind me I know she hasn’t broken her stare. Dogs and children are always intrigued by the people who pay them no attention.
Walking out onto the front stoop, the breeze lifts the hair from around my face and reminds me to enjoy the moveable feast that’s Brooklyn in the Spring. The sights and smells of these streets are certain as the sun rising in the east. I belong to New York, born, and most likely destined to die here too, inhaling the exhaust, eating from street vendors, and part of the press of bodies. But even so, there’s no denying its beauty. April’s a month drunk with inspiration. I see it in the silhouette of trees and the colors of flowers on the sills. Even the sunlight highlighting the shoulders of women in sleeveless tops catches my eye. Nothing inspires me artistically like nature’s design and palette.
As I cross the bridge, and all the way to the Manhattan gallery, it’s hard to ignore how disconnected I am from technology compared to most people. Phones have become our most addictive drug. I’m the freak enjoying my surroundings. Only the old men and women are like me, free of distractions. We give each other a passing smile. Like aliens amidst the humans we recognize one of our own. The kids are the worst offenders. I want to warn them they’re missing it all. As I’m considering my superior take on life my cell vibrates. Smirking at the irony I check the caller. It’s Fig.
“Hey, what’s up?” I say, keeping my fast pace.
“I’ve only got a minute, I’m going into a meeting. Just checking that we’re still on for tonight.”
“Nine o’clock. Pure on Fifty-Third,” I say.
“We’ve got a surprise for you Oliver. In fact, three of them. Don’t be late.”
He sounds too gleeful.
“Just so you and your new girlfriend aren’t trying to set me up.” I’m not joking.
“Got to go. Arrivederci!” He disconnects.
Fucking people. Everyone wants to be a matchmaker. Fig’s up to something. We’ve been best friends since our junior year in high school, and I know that inflection in his voice. Even though he’s spent the last year working in Italy, and its thickened his accent. Glad he’s back to stay this time. I find it funny that he met a New Yorker who was vacationing there and now they’re a couple. He offered no details, which ups my interest.
Shit! The class starts in fifteen minutes. Sprinting the last half mile to the gallery I make it with six minutes to spare. Walking in I see a young polished woman on the edge of beauty sitting at the reception desk.
“I’m here for the figure drawing class.”
“Good afternoon Mr. London,” she says with a smile that tells me she knows something I don’t.
“Have we met?”
“No. I was just wondering who was going to show up after hearing Ms. Mann and Mr. Martin talking about you earlier.” She swivels back and forth in her chair, her crossed leg bouncing as she does.
“Who’s Ms. Mann?”
She looks at me as if I must be stupid. “Only the most influential . . .”
We’re interrupted by a well-dressed older couple entering the gallery. The girl changes her focus and assumes a business posture. She loses the smirk and directs me.
“Upstairs, second door to the right.”
I’m dismissed. Making my way up the stairs I take them two at a time. At the end of the hall people gather outside what I assume is the classroom. There’s that same woman who stood in the back of the NYU class observing. She’s got a dramatic look I wouldn’t forget. Her pitch-black hair’s cut sharp as a knife and it hardly moves. Her lips are crimson and perfectly drawn. She’s rail thin. With those red soled heels, she must stand six feet tall. The all black outfit with the short red lined cape makes her look like a masochist Zorro. I picture her in a Helmut Newton photograph wearing black stockings, garter belt and bra. She’d be holding a whip, staring stoned faced at the camera. And a man in his underwear would be on his knees, hands tied behind his back, waiting for his punishments. Turning my way, her eyes scan me up and down. Then they zero in on mine. There’s no smile or attempt to charm.
I duck into the changing room, lose my clothes, and stash them in the locker. There’s a pecker check to make sure nothing’s there that shouldn’t be. George requested I come completely manscaped. Whatever. I throw on the terry cloth robe hanging on the hook and walk out. The students and the woman have moved into the classroom and I’m alone now, walking towards the door. Here we go.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our model,” says George as I enter the room.
A casual lift of my hand acknowledges the class. I can see there are about ten students, but I avoid their eyes. It’s better that way, because a sexy brunette or hot blonde could potentially give me a boner. A great pair of tits or a come fuck me look and things could go bad. I remember it happened once in a class I was attending as a student. Poor guy. All he could do was try to hide it with his hand. He finally grabbed his cover and walked out. Never saw him again. Wouldn’t that be great? Standing naked in front of a class full of strangers with my dick slowly lifting in a salute. Stop thinking about it! I approach the staging circle, a round that rotates to show all angles of the models body. I look to George for his signal. He nods, I lose the robe and step onto the platform.
“Facing front, Mr. London. Clasp your hands behind your back. Widen your stance a bit please.” His voice deep and commanding.
I look straight ahead, over the heads of the students. That’s where the woman stands watching at the back of the room, arms folded, posture ramrod straight. In a turn of events I wonder if my dick’s shriveling with her cold stare. George walks by and goes around her because she doesn’t move. When he does, I hear, “Excuse me, Piper,” almost as if he’s asking her permission to pass. Is this the Mann woman the receptionist was talking about?
“Note the musculature of our model, artists,” says George as he walks the room. “Find the rhythm of the pose. Don’t overdo and make him look like a contestant in a Mr. World contest. A lean body with developed muscles is a joy to draw. His lack of excess fat reveals what lies beneath. Look at the beauty and draw it subtly. Control your impulses to gild the lily. This body doesn’t need you to add anything that isn’t there. Identify important landmarks and characteristics such as the strong jawline, the dark brows, the penis, the hip line. Oh, and please don’t ignore the broken nose, people. It’s an important part of the image. An unexpected flaw can be dazzling in a painting or drawing, and be what sets your subject apart. Begin.”
The familiar sound of charcoal against paper fills the room. Other than the artists’ marks, and George’s steps, it’s quiet. I let my mind wander, going through a list of things I need to take care of before I go out tonight. ATM, dog food, call Grace. I guess I’m going to have to shave. Crap. Why did I agree to go? I’ll offer my credit card, but God help me if he accepts. I would have been just as happy to meet for a beer and get back to my rat hole and my dog. God, I sound like an old fart. But he was so fucking happy about me meeting the girlfriend. So shit, I’ll just get it over with.
The half hour passes quickly, but it’s a relief when George announces a ten minute break. My shoulder’s starting to ache. Stepping off the round I grab the robe. By the time it’s on, the woman from the back of the class is standing beside me. Up close I see the sharp angles of her face. It’s hard to determine age, because she’s had work done. Maybe late forties.
“I’m Piper Mann,” she says in a cool tone, as if the announcement should mean something to me. I imagine horns sounding her arrival.
“Oliver London,” I respond, accepting her outstretched hand. It feels skeletal, like there’s nothing separating skin and bone. I’m not sure how she lifts that huge ruby on her right hand.
“I learned George was using you today, so I came to introduce myself. We won’t talk at length now, too many ears and eyes.”
“About what? Are you interested in me posing for you?”
“No. I’m interested in your paintings. Take my card and give me a call.” She holds out the black business card between her long thin fingers. “Tomorrow at three works for me. And clear your schedule for all day Saturday.”
My heart starts beating faster. “Sure. That works for me too.”
I take the card and slip it into my pocket.
“Good answer. I’ll expect your call,” she says pointedly.
And she’s gone, walking out of the room without another word. What just happened? Did I agree too eagerly and sound like a needy little pussy? But she said paintings. Plural. Does that mean she wants to buy more than one? For that I’ll let her play alpha dog for five minutes if it gets her off. But you better rein in that attitude, woman. I’m not your bitch.