Cruellest Month

Painting on copper plate was tricky, thought Peter, though, as promised, produced a smouldering, luminous under glow, imbuing subtle, shimmering warmth to the face in his portrait. In this case, the fragile, contented face of Donna, his wife.  Jake, an artist friend, a former fellow student who had stayed on to teach a course or two at the Portland School of Art after graduation, had procured a stack of etching plates slated for recycling. These had been used by students and subsequently discarded after unsatisfactory forays into that exacting art form. Knowing how hard up the Abbeys were, he’d given half to Peter, who had kept them in abeyance, patiently waiting to be visited by just the right idea for a series of miniatures heralding a noteworthy departure in his work.

However, in the absence of inspiration, Peter had instead embarked on a series so traditional, so intimate in nature that he approached the pieces furtively, almost guiltily, gobbling up odd half pies of the clock before or after dutifully painting his current, bill-paying commissions, or doggedly drafting sketches for the airless, neo-realistic still lifes used as ballast for the more experimental paintings earmarked for his upcoming autumn gallery show. Rarely controversial or passionate, the small oils were, nonetheless, exquisitely executed and nearly always sold, keeping his precarious existence afloat. Labouring under few illusions as to his career in the art world, Peter was grateful for his modest, but loyal, following of friends, colleagues, and admirers, who unfailingly drifted into his exhibitions to swill cheap, tepid white wine accompanied by soggy bruschetta, while enthusiastically, loudly praising his skill, perseverance, and forays into sketchily charted waters, which, if not exactly marked “Here Be Dragons,” at least indicated depths unplumbed. They also kept interest buoyant with reviews and notifications in local rags and mags, even splashing out, when finances permitted, for a commissioned portrait of a family member, loved one, or even pet.  Still, after each already had one, sales had fallen off, duty done.  So, together with Donna’s job at the library, the already not so young couple got by in a prudent, though by no means scraping fashion, while the artist’s confident supporters looked forward to his breakthrough, his major departure, where he would crest a tsunami of regional, if not national success.

Early in their years together, Peter and Donna had, of course, made the back-packing art pilgrimage to Italy. Venice had been magnificently, romantically decrepit, but disconsolately expensive, so they had moved on after three days of museums, enervating, humid heat, vicious mosquitos, and a disappointing music scene.  Apart from a competent recital of Italian arias at Santa Maria della Pieta, now known as “Vivaldi’s church” because there the Red Priest had shepherded his flock and taught violin to orphan girls, Vivaldi’s circumscribed compositions, notably the inescapable Four Seasons, were virtually the only summer classical fare on offer. The elegant church’s oval interior, with its rotunda and Tiepolo ceiling, had offered some compensation for the workaday musicality of the performance of show stopping songs. Otherwise, it was hard to believe that the legendary city had ever been a great seat of music. Donna had lamented with a sigh that tourists seemed satisfied with that meagre, repetitive oblation. So, after wistfully declining a pricey gondola ride—Donna eschewing the experience by repeating a review stating that the wooden seats were hard, right-angled, back-crippling affairs anyway—they had moved on to other magically constructed, tourist-crammed,  heat-radiating stone cities featuring bedbugs by night and incomparable sculptures, paintings, pizza, and gelato by day.

Together they had dutifully visited the major art meccas housing so many of the works they had studied in art history classes, Peter excitedly pointing out to his ardent companion visible details that were masked or undetectable in photographs of the works they now had the privilege to see in person. One of the masterpieces transformed and made memorable to him was Guercino’s “Venus, Mars, and Cupid,” in some measure because the goddess’s full face, steady gaze, chestnut hair, rounded body, and sturdy legs reminded him of Donna, and partly because of the unexpected naturalism of the painstakingly rendered, unself-conscious hair on the subject’s legs. Peter, who had leaned in to the canvas so closely that a museum guard had felt compelled to intervene, concluded in the end that the attenuated long hairs must have been rendered with a fine, wire brush. Upon their return home, La Donna—henceforth his pet name for her—sat for him while he painted his own Venus, referencing the Guercino right down to the wire brushwork. Calling it “The Venus of the Hairy Legs,” eliminating the background architecture, flattening the surface paint, and substituting camouflage fatigues for armour, as well as his own face for that of Mars, while infantilising Donna’s face for Cupid’s, the painting had proved Peter’s first critical success, garnering heady notices in the press.

The Venus was, for the young painter, an unusually large canvas, his first piece painted in the new studio, his very own lean-to studio off the side of the unpretentious, low-ceilinged, wooden cottage on Peaks Island, a short ferry ride from Portland, Maine. This the Abbeys had purchased and furnished with yard sale rejects or by cadging bits and pieces here and there. This change in fortune had not occurred without pain and turmoil. While driving to Boston for an unprecedented celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary, Donna’s parents had died in a winter storm pile-up on the Mass pike, leaving their two children a simple, single family home in South Portland. Donna and her sister had sold the property, splitting the proceeds. With her share, she and Peter had put a down-payment on the island cottage and set about constructing their rural, bohemian idyll.

The painter was dabbing the final touches on his first miniature of his wife, just her tranquil, coppery, resplendent head in profile facing an open window through which a stark, winter’s end landscape was depicted: black, leafless, spiky tree branches flanking a grey-brown pond where oversized raindrops plopped extravagantly, backed by a gun-metal sky. He registered the flesh and blood Donna’s wet, slamming entrance into the mud room as he completed his work, following her progress as an aural familiar: she places the plastic grocery bags carefully onto the slate floor, divests herself of sleet-soaked outer garments and duck boots, slides on slippers, picks up the bags again, and deposits them on chairs around the wood table for imminent unpacking. He took his time cleaning brushes and putting away paints and tins, anticipating the instant she would pop her damp head around the door as soon as the groceries had been put away. This she did shortly, carrying two café glasses of Casco Bay plonk (back when they had owned a TV, they had been Rumpole fans). Tenderly kissing Peter’s lips, handing him his glass, and clinking, Donna examined her portrait steadily. After an attentive minute, she looked her husband full in his silver eyes and smiled appreciatively.

“It’s very quietly provoking,” she commented at last. “And, naturally, calmly, sadly beautiful and timeless. Also an element of bleak.”

“April is the cruelest month,” he teased, knowing how annoyed she became when Eliot’s line of poetry was bandied about as a literal cliché.

They placed their glasses on his work table, proceeded to trace their fingers over one another’s faces, dig into each other’s hair, and kiss without urgency. Removing one another’s clothing with sensual deliberation, they stopped to sip their wine and, as if they had all the time in the world, trailed to the lumpy couch. Peter spread a soft throw on its surface, whereupon the two pulled each other down, easily, confidently, moving in tandem. Then they loved, conceiving Abigail.

Six weeks later, in glorious, blossoming mid-May, Donna burst into the kitchen on a Tuesday following work, catching her rarely culinary inspired spouse assembling tacos, the fresh vegetables a harbinger of summer. Naturally, he had known of her doctor’s appointment that day to have her suspicions confirmed. One glance at her incandescent brown eyes announced triumph. A triumphant future. Already several years into their life together, into their thirties, they had capitulated, resigning themselves to a childless, though not for that, less loving union.

Peter cursorily wiped his hands on a towel, took his partner by the hands and danced her from the kitchen to the living room, where she fell into a chair with him tumbling onto her lap. Both laughing, he broke into his favourite rendition, “The Lady is Furniture,” sung to the tune of “La donna e mobile.” Donna, shaking her head in mock irritation, as always on these occasions, rolled her eyes, pushed at his chest, and responded on cue, “That’s not what it means.” She was the Italian speaker.

Friends and family did their best to dissuade the couple from naming the inchoate child Abigail. Abby Abbey, they sneered, mimicking childhood cruelty, would ruin her life. However, the prospective proud parents stood firm; they would name their girl after Donna’s mother, a solid New England name. She needn’t go by Abby; they would call her Abigail, or she might call herself Gail. If she turned out to have a spectacular sense of humour, she might just go by Abby. In fact, there was, as yet, no gender confirmation. They were simply determined that the baby was a girl. And so it proved.

In Peter’s next copper plate miniature of Donna, the green light of spring seeped through the open window, framing an apple blossom in the foreground overlaying the clear pond, and this time showed her half form, still in lustrous profile, luxuriant hair down this time, gazing serenely out. In the following one, the branch was in large, succulent, lazy leaf, sun reflected off the pond, and she was depicted sitting in a ladder-backed chair, full body, wearing an Empire style crimson cotton dress that emphasised her rounded bump. Subsequently, her bulbous figure was juxtaposed with a magnificent, autumnal imbued October, her hair regally pinned and intertwined with ribbon, pearls, and glass beads, her floor length silk gown a deep forest green, and her expression ecstatically introspective.

A progression of Donna-madonnas gestating, reflecting the changing seasonal lambency, and glowing with burnished inner effulgence was propped in linear order on the makeshift mantelpiece in the artist’s studio, like talismans. When he grew weary of his comparatively prosaic tasks related to the upcoming gallery show, he put down brushes, rags, tubes, cans, and moved close to the plates, scrutinising each, one by one, with inner calm and satisfaction. Would he ever exhibit them, so personal, so secret as they were? Only the subject was permitted to enter this sanctum.

Peter Abbey’s fall opening at the Bowsprit Gallery, an upscale Old Port institution privately referred to as BS by artists because it’s commission commanded 60% of sales, was in high-spirited, well-lubricated full swing when Donna quietly slipped out to buy a couple of bottles of  Freixenet for the after party with select friends. Not quite Champagne, but a cut above what they were imbibing now. With familiar gratification,  she observed a few red dots indicating sales on identifying cards beside the paintings. Peter was in his element, giving an impromptu interview for local TV news in his ubiquitous checked flannel shirt and worn Levis. The wife smiled in reflected glory.

She didn’t bother changing out of her party shoes, which were almost flat soled, after all, and the wine shop was only a block and a half up the cobbled street. The earlier drizzle had gathered strength, sliced to a slant by a slashing, frigid wind. Donna was pulling her black wool cape across her bowed belly when without warning her feet skated forward on a pile of soaked golden leaves. The fall seemed to occur in slow motion like a film montage, so aware was she of each segment: sliding shoes; loss of balance as she tipped to the left, her arms flung out for protection; purse flying; the jolt, thump, thud of her hip and then stomach as she landed hard on the brick sidewalk, scraping her elbow and palm. For a still, silent moment, she lay motionless, taking stock of her position, tentatively moving limbs. Then she was assailed by a roar of pain, an all-encompassing, invasive iron ache at her core. The pale, pregnant woman managed to communicate to gathering pedestrians that no, she was not all right, but rather in extremis, that she needed her husband at once, the artist just over there, in the brightly lit gallery. An ambulance was summoned. Two people were trying gingerly to help her to her feet when her exquisite brain was torn to shreds, words atomised by the blinding bomb exploding in her head.

It didn’t help, though it was meant as a sort of shocked nod of kindness, when all of Peter’s paintings were sold that night. Gestures of impotent sympathy. They wouldn’t make Abigail’s heart beat again, or return his wife or life to him.

Sometime after Donna’s fragmented brain began to settle like scattered shards, a gradual awareness descended on her that part of her body was not only damaged, but gone, irretrievably missing. No one had put it into actual, unnecessary words. Her mute grief was immense, thwarting the cajoling efforts of caregivers who endeavoured to beguile her into therapies devised to regain speech, movement, concern for her recovery, to galvanise her will against the pervasive exhaustion. Unless forced to move, she lay inert, in a thick, miasmic netherworld, staring dully at the ceiling. Even her husband’s steadfast attempts to usher her to safety and comfort were impervious, barely perceptible, within her grayscale emotional kaleidoscope.

Aunt Claudia came in blinding polyester print, in plastic costume jewelry, in sky blue eye shadow and shocking pink lipstick, reeking of cigarettes and cloying cologne. But she came. She junked up the stylish, understated country kitchen with jars of instant coffee and instant meal packets, swept away the strategically placed potpourri, instead sticking chemical air freshener cassettes to the painted walls, and tossed out carefully bundled dried flowers and herbs, turning up her snub nose and hissing “dust catchers.” She stacked Donna’s tasteful pottery jars in a closet, inevitably demanding to know what had become of the wedding present she had given them—those cunning animal vases. (The set of kitschy, anthropomorphised, pot-bellied, grinning field animals had been returned to the department store mercifully indicated on the tag, and exchanged for flannel sheets, in the conviction that Aunt Claudia would never visit.) The interfering woman had bought some silk flowers “to brighten up the place,” and those sweet vases would be so cute with them. Peter despaired further. He sensed that not just his marriage, but his home had been swept away by the ravages of an Act of God.

More and more often the artist slept on the old couch in his studio, feet hanging over the side arm, breathing in paint and turpentine fumes instead of his wife’s earthy rosemary and lavender scent. His and Donna’s bedroom had a sterile air about it now, cluttered with an astonishing array of adapted convalescent gear—an adult potty chair, a walker, various monitors and devices designed to facilitate physical therapy—that made him feel as though he should knock and abide by visiting hours. He felt displaced, as well, by easygoing, well-meaning Tobias, the muscular young physical therapist who ferried over bi-weekly to exact his infinitesimal regeneration in the room that had been the Abbey’s intimate sanctuary. Peter felt banished.

Still, he spent several hours each day seated by their bed, reading or talking to Donna, trying to get her to practice speech, take an interest in their common world, feel loved, supported, needed. La Donna held vehement opinions about how Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece of modernism, The Waves, had been unfairly eclipsed by Joyce’s Ulysses owing to the great censorship brouhaha. She had been known to wax vehement on the subject. So Peter set about chronologically reading aloud the complete works of her beloved VW, vaguely trusting that the literary unfolding of the author’s oeuvre would carry Donna’s brain to a similar breakthrough of clarity. These days, his wilfully silly Italian mistranslations, which had rarely failed to elicit amusement, fell flat. The stroke had evicted her command of Italian, like so much else. In her eyes, he read only opaque blankness. Occasionally, he crawled into bed beside his wife, taking her in his arms, stroking her unresponsive body in the old way, whispering sweet somethings, willing her to find her way home. As far as he could see, the results were negligible. He wouldn’t give up, of course, but he wondered how long he could sustain the act. Because an open-ended run was definitely required of him, and acting was not his forte. Before an unresponsive audience, yet. Come on, Donna, put your hands together. Will you ever smile again? I need a little encouragement here.

Rather than let her perceive his bereft condition, he satirised it in a way she used to relish, particularly unsparing in his send up of Aunt Claudia. Donna’s mate did stand his ground on a few points with the exasperating woman. No smoking in the house; no cigarette butts in the garden; no faux food for the patient or himself. Indeed, in his insistence, the man became a quite serviceable cook, as Donna’s mother’s sister seemed oddly incapable, not to mention uninterested, in preparing anything that didn’t pour from a can or package. No accounting for the difference in siblings, he supposed, given that his mother-in-law had been a simple, but healthy cook, a nurturer and broad-minded individual. Claudia, conversely, was convinced that the Abbeys and their “ilk” were just determined to make life unnecessarily onerous by rolling back the clock to a time without conveniences. She countenanced no explanations. For starters, why live in such a backward neck of the woods with no car, no TV—she’d brought her own large, dominating set—no shopping malls? Happily, some of the woman’s unshakable notions were the stuff of comedy. Like her conviction that comfortably out-of-the-closet Tobias couldn’t possibly be gay, a muscular, clean-cut fellow like that. Peter was obviously slandering the handsome man out of jealously, which, frankly, surprised and disappointed her. Or that her husband’s death from heart disease combined with pancreatic cancer had nothing to do with three packs a day for 35 years. “It wasn’t lung cancer, you know,” she would sniff dismissively, unaccountably put off.

As Peter was undeniably grateful for Claudia’s loyal, genuinely generous, unpaid intervention, he recognised the futility of arguing matters which revolved, basically, around taste. So limpet-like, fairly careful not to offend her, he attached himself to the hope that her good offices would not be required for much longer, like soldiers who always seemed to march off to war saying it would all be over by Christmas. The alternative was unthinkable.

When not executing the enormous paintings for his Christmas exhibition, during the solitary black night hours, an unkempt Peter Abbey wrought two more miniatures from the last of the copper plates. The first was elaborated from his unfathomable anguish, and depicted a disheveled, full formed, but diminished Donna, her lank, lustreless hair hanging in strings, jaw slack and cheek pulled down, as though stitched that way, clad in a faded white nightgown, peering with those unseeing, opaque eyes out onto the familiar landscape, this time rendered as ice-edged mud. The final piece constituted an act of faith, a prayer. Erect, well-groomed, and restored, wearing a deep purple velvet gown, her slightly dimmed, now resolute gaze contemplated a pure, snow-covered dominion with acceptance and calm, a soft glow permeating her skin. This offering he placed on a decorative table easel at his wife’s bedside.

The contents of Peter’s winter show were hush-hush. Refusing to divulge any advance information, even to the Bowsprit, except number, dimensions, and hanging instructions, the painter succeeded in creating a frisson of anticipation hitherto undetected in Southern Maine art circles. The gallery’s publicity director made the most of the mystery, so when the evening of the vernissage arrived, an actual unveiling took place for the packed assembly of guests and members of the press, some culled from Boston, one from New York. King sized white sheets covering five very large canvases suspended from the rafters were dropped simultaneously after the Director’s introduction of the artist. Then expert lighting was focused on every piece in a formal, unprecedented display of drama. The artist, virtually unrecognisable in an impeccably pressed black tuxedo and bow tie, ordinarily shaggy, dirty blond hair slicked back, borrowed leather shoes spit-shined, proceeded to point out that this new conceptual approach was a great departure for him, as those familiar with his work were aware, and that it was crucial for the viewer to take note of materials involved. That was all; he thanked them for their attention and said he was available to answer questions, whereupon he clasped his hands behind his back and strode to the side bar, where a crystal glass brimming with Champagne awaited him.

Most of the attendees could have been knocked over with the feather that was provided in one of the glass ampoules dangling from the centre of each of the paintings hanging in a semi-circle, like some sort of floating half Stonehenge. On the first rectangle, left to right, entitled “Noon,” shone a dazzling, shimmering egg inside an azure ground. A card on its stationary podium explained that mixed into the oils were pulverised eggshells and mother-of-pearl. Semen had been preserved in a vernice bianca varnish. Attached at eye-level was a small transparent glass sunburst filled with more semen. The second rectangle, entitled “Sunset,” was painted an orange-peach hue, and encompassed an identical, though somewhat larger egg. This one sported a little hourglass containing a one-third measure of brown earth in its top cone and two-thirds of the same at bottom. The third canvas, “Midnight,” was a dark, flat rectangle of predictable midnight blue, through which peeped a penumbra of slightly lighter blue. A hollow glass anchor stoppered with sea water hung from it. “Dawn,” the fourth, consisted of a pale violet ground surrounding an even paler violet trapezoid. Its glass accoutrement was a dainty flute enclosing wind, it was explained, and a tiny white feather. The fifth and final painting loomed infinite and menacing: a black egg inside a black rectangle. A black on black that made Malevich’s square seem child’s play. Artists like to say that there is no such thing as true black, but surely this was close. The eye was drawn inexorably to the only relief from the empty expanse: a miniscule plaster of Paris death mask smeared with ashes. This one bore no title.

For an awkward few moments, the crowd murmured haltingly, as if at a funeral. Ultimately, the bar saved the night, doing a brisk business, loosening tongues and relieving tension. By evening’s end, journalists were floating theories, guests, derivations and influences, and it became apparent that a star was born. Friends hung on the artist, some slapping him on the back of his tux. “You did it, Peter,” said the Director, putting her slender arm on his shoulder. “This is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for. Sad it took a tragedy to make it happen.” He stared at the perfectly turned out woman so curiously that a shudder ran from her patent leather encased toes to the dyed blond roots of her hair.

Gliding to the coat rack, he collided with Jake, who slurred, “You’re a rock, Pete. You’ve grown into your name.” The new star felt immobilised by cold, as though his veins had been injected by ice. Dropping his slate grey eyes, he nearly expected to see his body naked, unprotected. Peter Abbey had turned to stone.


About dianegmartin

A writer of poetry, fiction, memoir, and essays, I have published fiction in New London Writers, Vine Leaves Literary Review, poems in the Willamette Review of the Liberal Arts, Portland Review of Art, Pentimento, Twisted Vine Leaves, The Examined Life, Wordgathering, and a book of early poetry, as well as a children’s book in Moscow, Russia. My photos have been exhibited in the US, Russia, and Italy, and will soon be published in Conclave. I have broadcast essays on Maine Public Radio, as well as participating in radio programs and documentaries in the US and Russia. I am currently writing an autobiography, among the usual pieces.A long-time resident of San Francisco, CA, Maine, St. Petersburg, Russia and, more recently, Sansepolcro, Italy, I have traveled widely and often, owing to immigration restrictions, reluctantly. The themes of exile, disability, and nomadism pervade my work. In order to pay the bills, I translate and edits texts. Those published are too numerous to list here.

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