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[Fiction]

Drawing From Life

Illustration by Xiao Hua Yang

[Fiction]

Drawing From Life

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Called out of retirement. Already onto other things. Netflix, Roku haiku, one patient Basho letter at a time. Onto berating the orange sun god, with his changeable guard of hagiographers fanned out in ray formation on TV. Onto tending his garden with a side of memoirs, the ones he got up early not to write. Onto the dog, who smiled more as it aged. Onto the grandchild that his daughter Dina might still have with Eitan, whom he keeps calling Itai. Onto anything other than painting, ever since the school he ran closed, not due to plague but lack of students, because who wants to deal with mineral spirits and linseed oil, with scumbling and impasto, obstinance and failure, when with one click you can capture your world, arrange your face and limbs, your golden light, breakfast still life, your vanity, vanitas, hat, bat, cat, and share it out to the millions who are waiting to respond with all their hearts?

Not bitter, no. On the contrary, Harold was still strong in the muscle of joy. He’d come to that place they call acceptance, showed his battered passport, and customs had cocked its head, looked him in the eye, looked down his throat, and finding an absence of bile, let him pass. Finding a man who has accepted, who is accepting, a man ready to take up the butterfly net and catch what can be caught, to look and then let go as the rules require, stamped him on through, and he went out into that overgrown meadow holding nothing, being nothing, sometimes even thinking nothing, at the direction of the meditation app that Dina subscribed him to for his seventieth birthday. And being nothing, he occasionally found himself a conduit for joy. Unowned joy, unclaimed joy, not his joy but the greater Joy that from time to time passed through him, and which he knew better than to try to hold on to. And it was there, already across the border and on the other side, that he was called back. Told that his skills—his skillz, as Itai would have it—could be employed or deployed, could be helpful, in this time of need. That is what Harold had understood. And so he returned to customs, and the guard with the lazy eye checked his paperwork for immunity, put an X through the retirement stamp he’d formerly given him, handed him back his oil paints, and deported him, so that Harold, retired painter and recent survivor of a contagion that took so many but not him, could be pressed into service to sit with the dead before burial, and paint their portraits for the families not allowed to be present when they’d passed.

Early one April morning, while he was seeding the grass, his cell phone rang, and who was it but the president, not He of the Tremendous Light, but the president of the synagogue where Harold’s wife, Letty, has been active, and Harold an occasional backrow attender and perennial grumbler, for forty years. To what do I owe the privilege, Marty, he said, clamping the phone between ear and shoulder the better to go on dragging his rake across the soil, Did I forget to send in the check for annual dues? But what Marty wanted was more abstract than money, though like money it had kept him up all night. The rabbi, heavily quarantined with his heart condition and his asthma, had Zoomed with Marty, the assistant rabbi, and the cantor to discuss how best to manage funerals and support the grieving in the absence of any ability to gather. Two separate issues, said Marty, giving Harold the takeaway: 1) the practical matters of preparing and protecting the body between death and burial, and of the burial itself, and 2) the spiritual matters of honoring the dead and giving comfort to the mourners. Practically speaking, the traditional preparation would have to be done by the funeral homes as usual. Some were already refusing, those owned by the large Texas corporation that over the past twenty years had bought up most of the Jewish and many of the non-Jewish funeral homes in New York one by one, with a business model that left only their names, so that no one knew that I. J. Morris was no longer I. J. Morris, that Hirsch and Sons was no longer Hirsch and Sons, that Schwartz Brothers was no longer Schwartz Brothers, Marty said, even though I. J. Morris and Hirsch and the Schwartz brothers had themselves long ago died, and the phones all rang through to corporate. But there were still a few family-owned ones left that not even a plague could keep from performing the ritual purification they’d done for generations, and the rabbi would direct families to these. Zoom would allow for the rabbi’s virtual presence graveside, where the assistant rabbi would hold the phone and gallery-view in the mourners.

Here Marty paused and coughed, a fact they both passed over in silence.

That left the matter of the shomrim, the volunteers from the community who watch over and honor the dead between death and burial, and the question of novel forms of comfort for these novel times of dying at a distance, dying alone, with its concomitant guilt, frustration, and grief, above and beyond the usual portions. And there, where the need for watching and honoring and giving comfort converged, Marty had thought of him. Thought of Harold, who’d gone to his daughter’s in Brooklyn for dinner, had shared a plate of nachos with Itai, just off a plane from Hong Kong, and then been among the first in their community to fall ill—who’d tested positive and been down for twelve days, and would have ended up at the hospital had his nephew the doctor not arranged for oxygen, or dead but for the grace of God—and so was also among the first to recover. Harold, the retired painter with his immunity and his shuttered painting school near the harbor, where for thirty-five years he taught thousands of students to paint with oils, eight by eight, which is how many he could comfortably fit in the studio at one time. Taught them, under high windows that let down the northern light, how to handle the medium, how to prime their canvases and mix their colors, taught them imprimatura, drybrush, underpainting, grisaille, but mostly taught them, tried to teach them, how to see.

What do you say? said Marty, who’d had this stroke of brilliance at 3 am but had waited until eight to call Harold, at which point he caught him scattering grass seed. Now Harold put down the bag of seed, leaned the rake against the fence, and sinking down into one of the collapsible deck chairs he’d yesterday dragged up from the basement, said, Come again, Marty?

And so once more, cutting in and out on the overused wireless network, fending off an incoming FaceTime, Marty, macher of their congregation, beloved president for a decade, Marty with his devotion and his charisma and his cancer survival, outlined for Harold the idea that had come to him in the early hours of the morning while pacing his darkened living room and listening to the wail of a siren fade toward North Shore Hospital. He himself had often served as one of the shomrim, a practice that had evolved in ancient times, when it was believed that death was not the end of experience, so that it fell to the living to ameliorate the pain of the dead, both physical and spiritual. As long as there was flesh, it was believed that the flesh continued to feel, and so the body had to be treated with care. And the soul, the shocked soul that remained either unaware or unconvinced of the body’s death, and was believed to hover for three days before beginning its journey to the next world, should not be left alone in its confusion. Marty couldn’t volunteer now, not with the throat cancer he had only just barely survived last year. Nor could so many others in the community, old and vulnerable or afraid as they were. But Harold could, couldn’t he? Being over the illness? Harold, who each year donated to the temple fundraiser a portrait to go to the highest bidder, for which the bids were always high, Marty added, very high?

Or so Harold heard on his end of the call. And yet, regardless of what he heard or didn’t hear, why did he go along with it? Why, without asking a single question, before even hanging up the call, did he inwardly commit to Marty’s strange proposal, inwardly agree? Why, when at any moment he could have said what anyone might have said: that sitting with a corpse wasn’t for him, and also, who would want a portrait of a dead person? In Harold’s defense—and in Marty’s defense, if Harold had understood him correctly—it can be said that in the face of helplessness, in the face of despair, they’d both longed to do something, to be useful, and that longing was stronger than every argument against it.

Which is how it was that, for four weeks now, he had been learning again to see. To see the forehead emptied of thoughts, the history of expressions and of sunlight on the skin. To see repose, to see form moving toward the abstract. To see—if he was lucky, if we are lucky—to see what is liminal, what lingers or loiters in the wake of a life. At Gutterman’s in Woodbury they knew Harold now. The one who promised to look, to really look, on the one who would be looked at for the last time. The staff brought him into the cold back room, and he was greeted by the volunteer who sat and watched before him, or the person who’d just finished the ritual washing: the buckets of water poured, the wiping with warm cloths, the cleaning of the nails, the combing of the hair. No words were ever spoken. The door closed and they were gone, leaving Harold alone with the deceased, who lay covered on the metal table, and their long night together began.

I’m learning to see. He remembered reading that line in a paperback when he was twenty-two. Lying on his back in the grass, looking up at the Dutch clouds sailing past and being overwhelmed, totally overwhelmed, at being spoken to in that way. As if the writer, who claimed to be learning to see, was seeing him, as if a sentence had been assembled and a meaning forged for him especially, as if his world of being had been recognized and called out in those five simple words translated from the German. There’s a sweet spot for that sort of youthful revelation, for the shock of feeling seen by the seers, and he was squarely in it then, abroad for the first time, wide-eyed, impressionable as foil, learning to see the surface of things and also what was beneath, to see for himself and beyond himself, peeling the world open only to discover it looking back at him, knowing what he was better than he did. Or anyway that’s how it felt to Harold that day almost fifty years ago near the Amstel, on his back, the rolls of bleached clouds unfurling, the flatness of the landscape everywhere forever in all directions almost vertiginous, as if all that he’d taken to be true could abruptly break off, leaving him to plummet like one of Rilke’s angels, or Wile E. Coyote. He was learning how to look, learning how to see! All ostensibly for the sake of learning how to paint, to be a painter, so that he could see and paint anew, which he took to involve both lucidity and a vision, both seeing what is there and not yet there, i.e., what is yet to come. And learning to see and sketching what he saw, Harold saw a lot of women. Some he drew without ever approaching, and some he drew while talking with. Some he spoke to and afterwards drew, some he slept with. But only to one did he attempt to convey his still inarticulate theory about how learning to see might also involve (require?) learning to love. Amenable to the idea after three nights on the floor of her friend’s apartment in Montparnasse, Marika let Harold follow her back to Amsterdam, and for a little while, until she tired of him, he lived with her in her student apartment at the top of a house in the neighborhood of De Pijp, two rooms with sloping floors and seventeenth-century light. Marika spent most of her days at the library studying for her exams, and after walking her there he’d go off, with his sketchbook and a sandwich of butter and hagelslag, to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and van Ruisdaels, painted at a moment when all of the Netherlands, with their optics and microscopes and camera obscuras, was also learning how to see.

Sometimes he didn’t know the person who had died, sometimes he did. Sometimes it was the parent of someone he knew; once it was Mel Greenwald, whom Letty and he had gotten to know on the temple’s trip to Israel in 2003 (friendly, brassy Mel atop Masada, Mel grinning at Ben-Gurion’s grave, the-world-is-too-much-with-us Mel bargaining in sunglasses—bargaining for sunglasses?—in the shuk). And a week ago it was Mrs. Kovner, Dina’s preschool teacher, who thirty some-odd years ago let his daughter rule the block corner with a kippah askew on her little head, which she refused to take off in an early rash of feminism. Mrs. Kovner who every day greeted Dina at the classroom door, and every day sent her home again one day closer to her life, to the largeness of the life that awaited her, that awaited all of Mrs. Kovner’s little people, year after year, decade after decade, until at last, after introducing two generations to the alphabet, to numbers, to fairness and justice and the blessing over the challah, to thank you and sorry and don’t hit people over the head, Mrs. Kovner retired, with a ceremony funded by the Sisterhood. Mrs. Kovner who died alone, and whom Harold wanted to paint the way that Mantegna painted Christ, violently foreshortened, seen from her pierced and wrinkled soles, so dead, so recklessly human.

In better times, when there were more volunteers to sit, each would stay for only an hour or two, then be replaced by another. But as there were so few now, Harold got into the habit of taking the whole night. Around 6 am, just after someone from the funeral home arrived to relieve him, Marty would call. That Marty didn’t sleep was something Harold had not known about him. Sleep was beyond him now. He’d catch Harold just as he came out into the dawn and ask how he was. Okay, Harold would tell him, I’m good, relieved to hear another voice, to share with someone the sharpness of living. And maybe Marty was also relieved to be on the other side of another sleepless night. Harold would walk slowly, still dazed, toward the car, carrying the small wooden pochade box that held his paint tubes and the wet panel. So how did it go? Marty would ask, and for a moment Harold would think of all the things he might have meant by the question. Would think of telling Marty about the Mantegna that he couldn’t get out of his head, and the seventeenth-century paintings of anatomy lessons also haunted by the dead Christ, the greatest and strangest of them painted by Rembrandt in 1632. Okay, he’d tell Marty, good. And Marty would nod, Harold could hear him nod, Marty in his kitchen looking out at the trees in rinsed morning light. Marty who only went out, in his gloves and mask, to get a takeaway coffee when he couldn’t stand it anymore being shut in, closed off from the world whose contagiousness he’d always loved. He never asked Harold about the paintings, and Harold never spoke of them. Maybe he thought Marty would ask for them later, to give to the families when time had passed and the moment was right. Or maybe Harold came to believe that what was really wanted of him was the watching and the seeing, not the pictures that came of it.

Twelve of them altogether now, posthumous faces to the wall in his studio.

On the drive home after the night he spent with Mrs. Kovner, Harold called Dina. Dina who was also awake at dawn, because even the end of the world wouldn’t keep his daughter from her briefs, her cases. From her Williamsburg apartment she gazed down on the East River. The gray water, the black water, the blue water, all the same to Dinaleh, who saw it only as something between her and her Midtown firm. And ever since she met him and he came home with her and never left, Itai also gazed down on that ever-changing river. But unlike Dina who was born on the island and grew up in the shadow of the city, Itai must all that time have been trying to understand where that river flowed from and where it flowed to, must have been trying to work out in his Middle Eastern head how all of watery New York geography fit together. Now he was often gone all day long, Dina told Harold, driving and driving, smoking out the window, tracing arcs of harbor, ocean, wetlands, beach, estuary, marsh. Now that he was out of work and the roads were empty and you could get anywhere in the true time it really took to get to those places, Itai was flying: skirting the Belt and Shore Parkways, cruising Far Rockaway, hugging the Jamaica Bay wetlands, where the waterbirds wheeled in the sky, boring down the Jersey Shore from the Highlands all the way to the boardwalks of Asbury Park, then back up through Fresh Kills, where the mountains of trash had been carpeted with grass and stairways of compacted trash cut to heaven. He came home wild-eyed and windswept, mask dangling, speaking of the mansions of the Syrian Jews in Deal, of the Mafia in Staten Island, of the delicacy of causeways.

Mrs. Kovner, Harold said, do you remember her? Dina reached back, far, far back to the blurry realm of childhood, and remembered. And moved, tired from the long night alone with flesh and soul, he told Dina about the guarding and the looking, and the portraits that came of it. There was a long silence. Then his daughter said, Wait, that’s what you’ve been doing? They asked you to do that? And as she said it, Harold’s stomach contracted and he felt regret at having said anything. Isn’t that a little creepy? she said. I mean, who’s going to want a painting like that? she asked, switching over to speakerphone so that the riverine spaciousness of her apartment was suddenly audible, ambient. Before Harold could reply, Itai’s voice floated in to offer his opinion. He disagreed. Think about it, said Itai: 95 million images are shared on Instagram every day, and not one of them is of the thing that every network, news source, government official, every everybody, is talking about nonstop. We’re obsessively counting the dead, minute by minute, updating the number of corpses, without ever looking at them. The only witnesses for pictures of the dead are computers that wipe them out before they can ever get posted. Imagewise, it’s the elephant in the room, said Itai, taking a noisy slurp of his power shake. But here’s your dad, doing it. And he might be the only one, you know, so maybe go easy on him?

A rare warm feeling for his daughter’s boyfriend spread through Harold. Perhaps the two of them would go for a drive together along the coastal roads, the windows down, the ocean vast, and he would tell Itai what until then he hadn’t been able to say, even to himself: That at the age of seventy, having long ago given up on ambition, he’d found a subject that he knew he would never be equal to, and it made him less afraid, to sit quietly and paint what everyone fails in front of.

That morning someone from the funeral home, a member of the staff that offered the utmost in sensitivity and professionalism, as was printed in the brochures, stopped to ask him what was in it, that box he always carried. Harold looked back at him. He looked into his small, wet eyes, eyes inured to the sight of death, and asked a question in return. Why is it, said Harold, that no one ever speaks in front of the deceased? And the Gutterman staff recited the ancient reasoning: One shouldn’t mock the dead by doing in their presence what they can no longer do themselves. Which is everything, murmured Harold. The staff nodded, glancing down again at Harold’s paint-spattered box.

He pulled into his driveway and stood inhaling the smell of blooming trees. The sky that over the years had grown lousy with jet planes on their way to Kennedy was empty, the street silent but for the birds, and the dog inside the house—happy creature that knows nothing beyond its expertise—wildly barking at Harold’s arrival. He took the pochade box from the passenger seat and carried it inside. The dog smiled in the doorway. Letty slept on upstairs. Harold carried the box to the small room at the back of the house, closed the door behind him, and took out the painting of Mrs. Kovner. In the morning light he took up his work again, looking at all that can no longer look back.

 is the author of the novels Forest Dark, Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Her short story collection To Be a Man will be published this month by HarperCollins.


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December 2020