Friday, October 09, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (VI)

Mr. Sullivan's lodgings occupied the back half of the top floor of a narrow four-story brick building on Bedford Street. There was a rather pretty fanlight over the street door, though Matilda couldn't help but notice that it needed washing. Inside there was a worn mosaic floor and then a series of steep and warped wooden staircases; on the second floor landing she could smell cooking -- roast chicken and potatoes, she thought -- but otherwise the building's tenants all seemed to be out for the afternoon. She climbed slowly, though she was used to walking and didn't find the effort taxing. She wore a simple peach blouse, a gray skirt, and an expensive burgundy cloche that her mother had insisted on buying for her, though Matilda wasn't sure that it went, and she carried a small handbag and a light sweater over one arm, just in case it became cooler later on.

She knocked on the door and heard a voice respond from within, followed a few moments after by footsteps and the sound of the latch being undone. Mr. Sullivan was in his shirtsleeves and had evidently been washing up in the kitchen, as he had a dish towel slung over one shoulder. He apologized for keeping her waiting and ushered her inside.

The apartment was in truth really nothing more than one sunlit room, with a little alcove for a bed in the back corner and a small cooking and dining area set off to one side. The larger space was dominated by a desk, a bookcase, and two swaybacked tables, all of the available surfaces of which were covered, with the exception of a cramped working space on the desk, by a helter-skelter assortment of books, magazines, manuscripts, and writing accessories. All of this furniture had been shoved rather awkwardly together in one corner, leaving a large open space exposed to windows on two sides, with a view over rooftops and trees in the direction of the river. Set back a bit from the rear windows stood a pair of easels; upon them, and along every available expanse of wall around the room, were a number of charcoal drawings as well as a smaller number of rather tentative pastels. While Mr. Sullivan went to fetch Matilda a glass of lemonade she inspected his creations. She had to admit that he possessed a certain natural gift -- more so than her former fellow pupils or the gentlemen that she had modeled for, she was sure -- but on the other hand even with her untrained eye she could see that his technique was either undeveloped or indifferently applied. Almost all of the drawings were of women, clothed and unclothed, and among them she noted several of herself done at the academy. Though the work showed a measure of expressiveness and a nice vigorous feel for form, he had quite clearly not mastered the intricacies of figure drawing; moreover, she quite suspected, looking around the room, that he in all likelihood never would. The best of the pictures were some pen-and-ink caricatures that he had done, evidently of some friends; these relaxed little sketches were entirely more convincing than the more sober nudes and portraits.

When he returned, bearing a tall glass and noticing her attention to his little gallery, he assured Matilda, in the face of her hasty assertions to the contrary, that he really wasn't much of an artist but that sometimes he tried to pick up a few extra coins by doing sketches for magazines. It wasn't really his trade and he hadn't yet sold very many pictures but every bit helped. He pulled over a chair and asked her to please sit, and Matilda did so and sipped her lemonade while she watched the fronds of a locust tree bowing at her through the rear window. While she sat there he moved some things about and tidied up the room a bit, all the while talking about his work as a writer, about how you could make a living, or a sort of one, if you kept at it and turned your copy in on time and kept an ear out for opportunities that tended to come and go at a moment's notice. Matilda listened, in a fashion, which is to say that she understood what he was saying and nodded or smiled at the appropriate moments but that it also seemed to her that she wasn't really present in the room at all, or maybe she was but he wasn't, he was far away somewhere calling to her but he couldn't see her, or maybe he was speaking to someone else entirely and it was she who was listening in on the wrong line.

After a moment she seemed to lose her train of thought, and she realized that he had stopped talking and was standing over her. He had donned a light smock and was holding a charcoal pencil in one hand, and he asked her if she were all right and said something about how if Matilda was uncomfortable he wouldn't be offended or think anything the less of her if she would rather not stay. Matilda eventually came to herself and took his words in and said rather hazily that she was fine and that everything was fine and that she would make herself ready whenever he wanted to begin, and she found herself thinking that Mr. Sullivan wasn't such a bad sort at that. He handed her a robe -- it was his robe, naturally -- and she withdrew into the bathroom to prepare herself. There was hardly anything on his bathroom shelf, just a bar of shaving soap and a razor and a bottle of witch hazel and a handful of other little things, and while she undressed she thought about her parents' bathrooms which were always stocked with bottles and lineaments and lotions and powders and which it was the maid's responsibility to keep clean and tidy, and she realized that Mr. Sullivan had never had a maid and probably never would.

He had set a chair in the center of the room, leaving the curtains parted so that the afternoon light would fall on her from a side window as she posed. This made her squint, however, so she stood up again while he repositioned the chair slightly. When she let the robe fall her body remained hidden by the back of the chair, while Mr. Sullivan worked off to one side, so that an onlooker from the building opposite would have seen nothing more than the head of a young woman apparently passing the day by herself in her room. He became very serious as soon as he began to work, and said hardly a word for a quarter of an hour. He stopped twice and crumpled his initial sallies into a basket, then worked steadily for several minutes before frowning and tearing off another unsatisfactory attempt. He asked her to move to one side slightly; she obliged and he resumed but he still wasn't satisfied and after a moment asked her to move again. Finally he set down his pencil, stepped softly over to her, and gently but quite firmly took hold of her bare shoulders and shifted them into the position he desired. Matilda might have been offended by this -- it was certainly the first time a man had touched her in such a manner -- but to her surprise she wasn't. In fact she found herself thinking that she would not likely be offended no matter where Mr. Sullivan chose to place his hands.

To be continued.

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