I first met Jana twelve years ago, at the big Ballistoni retrospective in New York. We were standing beside each other, staring at a painting of a butternut squash on a bed of singed hundred-dollar bills – one of the artist’s most celebrated pieces.

‘I ate that squash,’ I said to her.

She nodded politely – we were strangers then. ‘Yes – I eat them, too.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I ate that squash. The one in the painting.’

She moved away from me slightly at this point and turned up the collar of her green velvet coat, as if I were blowing chilly air on her neck.

But I wasn’t deterred. I suppose I was in a mood from the cheap champagne I’d consumed before coming to the museum. Also, I was wearing a new dress – green velvet, of all things – and I had the uncanny sensation that our velvets were connected somehow, as if the fabrics had been cut from the same animal.

‘I was in Ballistoni’s studio when he finished the piece,’ I said to her.

‘Really,’ she mumbled – a statement more than a question.

Her incredulity was perfectly reasonable. Ballistoni was a known recluse. Very little had ever come to light about his friends or lovers – or even his family, for that matter. I am alone, he’d once said in a rare interview. Sempre da solo!

I’d heard every word of that interview, because the journalist had come to the house – and I was in the bedroom. Ballistoni – Peter – had relegated me there with firm instructions that I was not to come out until the interview was finished and the journalist gone. You do not exist, he told me.

Until that moment with Jana at the museum, I’d kept my mouth shut about this part of my life.

Nearly forty years of silence.

‘I lived with him,’ I said to her.

‘You lived at the ranch?’ Jana’s eyes narrowed, incapable of fighting the exhausting weight of her suspicion. Again, perfectly reasonable, because in the previous room of the exhibition there were photographs of the famous house in Arizona where Ballistoni had lived and worked – and, of course, I was not in any of these photographs. Just as I was not mentioned in any of the informative text stenciled in white on the dark blue walls.

I didn’t really care what the girl believed or didn’t believe. The pleasure of remembering was my own, and I had no agenda. I smiled at her authentically.

‘I was in the studio, lounging on the daybed, reading – Michener, I think – and Peter suddenly said, ‘Marion!’ He always shouted my name for some reason. ‘Marion! I think it’s finished. What do you think?’ And so I just nodded at the painting and said yes – which was all one could do. He never really wanted my actual opinion. And then he said, ‘Marion! Let’s eat. I’m starving.’

‘Well, I hadn’t done any shopping – and I had to think fast. Peter could get quite mean if I he didn’t get food when he needed it. So I said, ‘I’ll cook the squash.’

This squash,’ he said, ‘that I have just painted? This squash?’

‘He was often very dramatic – repeating himself. I mean, there was no other squash in the room, and I said, ‘Yes, Peter, I will stuff the squash and we’ll have it for dinner. The painting is finished, right? You have no further need for the squash.’

‘He seemed terrified suddenly, standing in front of the vegetable as if it were an endangered child. He was often like that after he finished a piece – vulnerable, almost human.’

I had Jana’s full attention now. She was just a girl then, barely thirty, and it was endearing to watch her stare at me with wide-eyed wonder bordering on terror. I hardly paused as I spoke to her – the past rushing out of me like a newborn cataract.

‘So there’s Ballistoni, standing between me and the squash. In an effort to ease his mind, I told him the painting was exquisite. I complimented the bold slash of yellow in the upper right corner – the perfect grace note. ‘The olive in the martini,’ I believe I said. ‘Yes,’ he quickly agreed. ‘It is done!’

‘And so he allowed me to take the butternut. Which I stuffed with some pecorino and breadcrumbs and a smack of anchovy.’

Jana turned away from me then and looked at the painting – at the intact squash that the woman beside her was purporting to have chopped in two and filled with mundane things – bread and cheese.

The painting, as I recall, was perfectly lit – the squash and the money, the nicked table on which these things sat, all of it looked impossibly real, as any memento mori must, if it is to have power.

‘So there you have it,’ I said. ‘I cooked Ballistoni’s masterpiece.’

Having admitted this, though, I felt ashamed at the paltriness of my historical footnote. I was about to move away when the girl asked, ‘Was it any good?’

‘The squash? It was all right,’ I replied. ‘I was never a fabulous cook. It certainly wasn’t as memorable as the painting.’

Jana peered down at the text on the wall. ‘Private collection. I suppose that’s you?’

I had to laugh. ‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘I don’t own any of Peter’s work.’

My laughter seemed to go on for a while.

‘Did he really burn all that money?’ she finally asked. ‘All those hundreds in the painting?’

‘He really did. I helped him do it.’

‘Well, he was rich enough, I suppose.’

‘Obscenely rich. But he never cared about the money. He cared only about painting.’

‘And what’s with the title?’ Jana asked. ‘A Mother’s Dilemma. I never got that.’

That was the rug pulled from under me, as they say, because I’d forgotten that Peter had called it that. I was suddenly overcome, quite speechless.

‘If you were really there when he painted it,’ the girl continued, ‘then maybe you can enlighten me. Is the squash supposed to represent fertility or something like that?’

What a nosy little bitch, I thought – which I understood immediately to be an inappropriate reaction, considering the fact that it was I who’d tempted the girl to her curiosities.

‘Who cares?’ I said, digging a pen from my purse. My intention was to scratch out the title on the wall.

But my hand was shaking and I felt extremely odd – sort of weightless and unreal, as if what Peter had said to me were actually true.

You do not exist.

‘Are you okay?’ I heard the girl say.

I was unable to respond. I sensed myself descending – and this turned out be an accurate appraisal, because suddenly there I was, a sixty-three-year-old woman sitting on the floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A guard soon appeared. ‘Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you ill?’

I waved my hands at him furiously – go away.

‘Ma’am. I have to ask you to please get up.’

His tone was not kind and when he touched my arm, it was rather roughly. I told him to get his fucking hands off me.

And then someone said, ‘Let me.’

It was Jana. ‘Come on,’ she said. As she grasped my elbow and her velvet touched mine, it took everything in me not to cry.

I stood obediently and followed her from the room.

 

*

 

Back at my hotel, after Jana dropped me off in a taxicab smelling vaguely of chicken soup, I couldn’t sleep. Bright slashes of light from the street cut me to shreds.

A Mother’s Dilemma?

There’d been no dilemma. Getting rid of the child had been Peter’s decision.

I shut the blackout curtains and took my pill.

I had one more day in New York City, where I’d gone solely for the exhibition. I wanted to see some of the paintings that had sprung to life around me when I was in my twenties and thirties. I lived with Ballistoni for nearly eighteen years, during what is considered his greatest period. I was with him right up until his death, at seventy-one.

When I met Jana at the museum, I’d alluded to the fact that Peter was mean – which he was. But all I could think about during my sleepless night at the hotel was my own weakness, to have allowed myself to be treated in such a way.

I did not come from a happy childhood. But don’t worry, I won’t spend my last bushel of breath telling that story. I only mention my childhood to say that its unhappiness, and the path this unhappiness engendered, is what led me to a bus station in Tucson, Arizona in the middle of the 1970s, wounded, but with no visible scars. Quite pretty, actually, if I am to believe the few photographs that survive.

Outside the bus station, a dark-haired man, carelessly handsome, in a rumpled suit and eating a candy bar, was walking by. I asked him for directions to the youth hostel. The address, given to me by a boy I’d met in New Mexico, was written in blue Bic on my forearm.

The handsome man in the shabby suit held my wrist a long time, looking at the address – much longer than it should have taken him to read it. He traced his fingers over the numbers and letters, in a manner more melancholic than flirtatious.

‘It is too hard to give the directions,’ he finally said. ‘I will drive you there.’

His accent was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.

In the car, though, we didn’t speak. At the hostel, he pulled over to the curb and we both looked at the rainbow-painted building, with dirty socks hanging from various windowsills and a large cat squatting indiscreetly on the porch.

He said, ‘In this place I think you will experience fleas. It is better for you to stay with me.’

I didn’t think to be afraid. Or perhaps I did and I thought, fine – if he kills me, so what? I was not so enamored with life. I was a sad girl from a small town in Utah where the sand was the color of bubblegum and the rocks rose from it like decayed teeth.

After driving for a while, past flat fields of paddled cactus and then into a maze of lunar hills, we stopped before a huge metal gate that looked like it was made of spears. My initial thought was that this man with the beautiful accent had tricked me – that he was the human equivalent of a dogcatcher, and was taking me to some kind of prison or mental institution. Clearly he knew what I was worth.

He pressed a button and the gate opened and before I could tell him to take me back to the station, he pointed – and I saw the improbably white house surrounded by a tangled coven of ironwood trees.

‘You will stay in the bedroom at the back. But you will have to clean it first.’ He looked at me steadily, without blinking. ‘You are willing to clean?’

I was too bewildered to say anything but yes.

 

*

 

‘Are you okay?’ Jana calls from the kitchen. I tell her yes. I tell her not to rush. She’s making the special tea, with the seeds and the berries.

Jana is forty-something now, and I am seventy-five.

It’s a mystery to me, why this girl appeared in my life. Though the greater mystery, by far, is why she’s still here. Over the past dozen years, Jana has come to see me often in Arizona – though this visit will be her last. I’m quite ill, but that’s neither here nor there. I am well aware that the only subject of interest to anyone is my time with Ballistoni. This was all Jana cared about, too, in the beginning.

The night after the retrospective, I must have finally fallen asleep – and around noon I woke to a red light flashing on the hotel phone.

A message.

Hi, this is Jana Perlman, we met yesterday at the museum, and I just wanted to check if you were all right. If you want to meet for coffee, I’ll be free later today, after four.

She left a number, which I called, and while the sun was setting we met at a tiny cafe not far from the hotel. She was once again wearing her green velvet coat – but her hair was a mess and I noticed the pigment on her hands.

‘Are you a painter?’ I asked.

‘I paint,’ she said modestly. ‘I’ve only sold a few pieces.’

After a shared scone and a bit of small talk, she arrived at the place I suspected she was heading.

‘So, what was it like, living with him? I heard he kept a gun by the front door in case anyone tried to come on the property.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He also had a slingshot, which he was quite expert with.’

‘So, were you, like, his lover? Or just a friend?’

Immediately I regretted my decision to meet the girl. What was I doing, talking to a stranger about such things? Besides, I’d made certain promises to Peter – even if his hand was on my throat when I made them. You keep your fucking mouth shut, Marion. Do you want them to come to the house and eat us up?

His paranoia could not be argued with. And, as time went on, it seemed less and less like paranoia and more like an acute understanding of the world. People did want to eat you up – and very possibly this girl was no exception.

‘My relationship with Ballistoni is private,’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Oh, I thought . . . You seemed very eager to talk about it last night.’

I said that I’d spoken out of turn. I mentioned the champagne. ‘I’m sorry.’

Jana looked down at her painted hands and then back at me, rather pleadingly. ‘But, I mean, if you lived with him and got to see how he worked and everything, that’s really important. You’re, like, part of the historical record.’

I told her she overestimated my position.

‘Did you live with him for a while?’

‘Eighteen years.’

‘Oh my god.’

‘I was just the housekeeper,’ I said, thinking this might curb the girl’s enthusiasm.

‘It doesn’t matter what you were, Marion. Marion, right? I mean, he’s a major figure in American art and there’s so little information about his life. And if you got to see him paint and his process and everything . . .’ She seemed almost angry with me. ‘I mean, shit, you saw him put that amazing stroke of yellow at the top of A Mother’s Dilemma – which is so unexpected and brilliant. I had a professor once say that he thought it was the most significant brushstroke of the 1980s.’

‘Is that so?’ I could hear Peter’s voice. Idiots – they are all idiots!

‘The squash and the money are by far the most beautiful parts of the painting,’ I suggested.

‘Yeah, they’re great – but the yellow is, like, what the fuck?’

‘So you’re an admirer of his work?’

‘Absolutely. I mean, I’m not a realist myself – and I don’t usually care for that kind of work, but Ballistoni’s realism was just so weird and so animate. The still lifes always seem to be staring at you – almost like they’re trying to say something.’

Memento mori.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Latin. “Remember you will die”.’

‘Oh, right – those paintings with skulls and hourglasses and stuff. Was that what he was going for?’

‘Peter had a keen understanding of death. It was always present.’

I was saying too much. The girl leaned in close enough for me to smell the turpentine.

‘God, it would just be so great if I could interview you. I know one of the editors at Artforum, and if you agreed we wouldn’t even have to speak about all the private stuff – we could just talk about Ballistoni’s work and what you witnessed and – ’

‘I must stop you, dear. As I’ve already said, I’m not willing to speak about these things any further. And even if I were, I assure you I have nothing interesting to add. Everything is in the paintings. And what people don’t understand should remain a mystery. That’s what Ballistoni would have wanted.’

Of course, part of me was dying to tell the girl everything. To tell her that, sometimes, late at night, furious with Peter, I would add secret scratches and tiny daubs of paint to whatever he was working on. In fact, many of these marks remained; I’d seen them the previous night, at the museum. The chicken pecks of my existence.

‘So let us respect Ballistoni’s wishes, shall we? No interview.’

The girl nodded, seeming to accept her defeat.

But after nibbling the last crumbs of scone, she lifted her eyes and lunged. ‘You said he was mean to you?’

What a devious child she was, feigning sympathy while digging in her claws, trying to open me like a clam.

‘He was an artist,’ I said. ‘Yes, he could be rude, demanding, even cruel. I suppose you would understand people like that. No sense of boundaries.’

My parry brought blood to the girl’s cheeks.

We took a few uncomfortable sips of our coffee and then Jana grimaced. ‘I didn’t mean to ambush you. I just get passionate about certain things.’

‘Your profession demands it, I suppose.’

My remark was intended to put the girl at ease, but I watched as a sadness slowly filled her face; it touched her lips first and then her eyes.

‘What is it, dear?’

She shook her head and sighed. ‘Maybe I’m just desperate. Being an artist is really hard, you know – and then when you said you knew Ballistoni, it just felt like a sign or something. That I shouldn’t give up.’

‘No – you mustn’t do that.’

She shrugged, but the sadness stuck to her.

‘There is always despair,’ I said. ‘For me it has been inseparable from hope.’

‘I guess.’ She rubbed her face like a sleepy five-year-old. ‘Do you want another scone?’

‘The first was pretty awful,’ I said.

I smiled and reached for my coat.

‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I’m having a little get-together at my apartment tonight, and, I don’t know, do you maybe want to stop by?’

‘Oh, I leave very early tomorrow.’

‘All the more reason to have fun on your last night. I promise I won’t ask more about Ballistoni. Just come and hang with me and my friends.’

‘Painters?’

‘Artists. I’m the only painter in the bunch. Most of them are more conceptual. And Mateo, my boyfriend, is a sculptor. In fact, he really wants to apply for a fellowship at the Ballistoni Center. Do you have any influence with that?’

‘No, I’m sorry. I’m quite out of the picture now.’

I glanced at her paint-smeared hands. Burnt umber, rose madder – and a streak of Prussian blue, my madeleine.

‘So what time is your soirée?’

 

*

 

Prussian blue. That color is my first day at the ranch.

The man who’d driven me there led me down a hallway with barely a word, showing me the closet with the vacuum and the mops – and then the nearby closet of disastrously folded linens. My quarters were at the far end of the hall – a little brown door with an out-of-joint knob that I doubted could be locked.

‘You have your own bathroom,’ the man said. ‘The water is very hot.’

That was it – and as he walked away I noticed the crookedness of his spine, the way his whole body curved slightly to the left, like he was dodging a bullet. And though my heart was racing at the thought of what I’d gotten myself into, there was also relief in the man’s silence. A relief not to hear, Have you run away? Are you in trouble? Has someone hurt you?

And it was a relief, as well, to have been given such direct orders – You will sleep here; You will clean the floor. It was perhaps the first time in my life when the rules of engagement were spelled out so clearly.

I got right to work, scrubbing and wiping until the filthy bedroom was spotless. A girl without a home, I didn’t have the luxury to feel demeaned.

The tiny bathroom had a huge claw-foot tub and a curtainless window facing one of the ironwood trees. I cleaned the porcelain, then filled it, washing myself with some ancient soap cracked like a piece of ivory and nearly as hard. I realized that the man hadn’t even asked for my name – and I suppose I’d returned the favor by not asking his.

After my bath, I sat on the bed for at least an hour, waiting for my stranger to reappear. When he didn’t, I ventured down the hallway. The house was huge, and I paused before every closed door and listened. Behind one, I heard what I thought was a dog scratching itself, a low dry sound, definitely not human.

‘Hello?’

There was no answer.

When I opened the door, I saw the man standing before an easel. The scratching was his brush. ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ I blurted.

He didn’t turn or acknowledge my presence in any way.

I backed into the hallway, but kept the door ajar, continuing to watch him apply aggressive flecks of pigment to the canvas. I could smell it from the doorway – ammonia and almonds. I realized how hungry I was.

The man was painting what looked like rubble, a small pile of bricks – perhaps pieces of a demolished building. The bricks, despite being chipped and mottled, were the most beautiful deep blue. I knew nothing about art – and I remember thinking, why is he painting the ruins when it was clearly in his power to paint the building? Which, judging from the color of the rubble, might have been a palace or a temple.

‘What is it?’ I said.

When he turned to me, I saw the pigment on his face – rather comically on the tip of his nose.

And then I saw that there was something written on his forearm.

In the bath, I’d washed off the address of the hostel from my own flesh, and I had the odd impression that it had reappeared on the man.

He saw me looking and pulled down his rolled-up sleeves.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘We will eat now. Bread and cheese. And there is wine. Tomorrow you will shop. You can drive?’

I nodded and followed him into the kitchen, where we dined off napkins, in silence. Now and then I glanced up at the pigment on his nose.

‘May I?’ I finally said, reaching out my napkin. He flinched but allowed it.

When I took the napkin away and showed him the paint, he said, ‘Prussian blue. Cyanide.’

 

*

 

After the retrospective, I’d returned to Tucson with a large painting composed entirely of violet squiggles, like a disease under a microscope. It was one of Jana’s pieces. When I said I liked it, the night of her soirée, she immediately unhooked it from the wall and signed the back. For the lady in the green velvet dress.

‘Let me pay you for it,’ I said, reaching for my purse. But she wouldn’t allow it.

I hadn’t been to a party in ages and felt unsure how to conduct myself. The girl’s friends were pleasant, though – drinkers and over-thinkers, with fabulous hair. Jana kept her word and didn’t mention Ballistoni, other than that she and I had met at the exhibition. I mostly listened to the young people shout at each other over the music. Occasionally Jana smiled at me or handed me some hummus on a cracker. During a private conversation in her bedroom, looking at some art, she mentioned that her parents were dead. I nodded – there was clearly some tragedy here; she was too young to have dead parents. I told her she was lucky to have a vocation.

At the door of her apartment, it took us a long time to say goodbye; we were both embarrassed – and this embarrassment seemed to stem from a feeling of intimacy incommensurate to our experience of each other. I had felt this only once before, with Peter.

We exchanged telephone numbers. I kissed her on both cheeks. And then, the following day, I was home in my desert bungalow, thinking, Where am I? Talking about the past had unsettled me, and I began to question the contours of the present – the bleak little life I’d made for myself after Peter’s death.

Jana’s apartment had had so much art – paintings, masks, madcap objets – that I felt disheartened to see my own impoverished walls, where the only things hanging were some devil’s claws found on my hikes and a small round mirror spotted with grime.

For days, I was in a dither, drifting around the rooms in a pretense of aimlessness – though I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Finally, one morning, with the wind whipping up phantoms of dust, I got in the car and drove to the ranch. I hadn’t been there in decades, though I was well aware of what had happened to the place.

The ranch was now owned by the state and run by the university. It was partly a museum and partly a retreat for young artists. Peter would have hated it. But it was his own fault for not having a will. I remember those strange weeks after he died, faced with legal terms I didn’t understand – intestacy, escheat. Silently, I’d backed away from our life, making no claims. I’d left with only the cash Peter kept in the house – which turned out to be quite a bit.

The road to the ranch was no longer dirt, and the ease of my approach, the car gliding over well-funded pavement, created a sensation of unreality. As did the sign. Welcome to the Peter Ballistoni Center. It was completely wrong – the ornate script like a wedding invitation.

The electric gate was open, and I parked in a lot where there’d once been a grove of paloverde. The house was freshly painted – still white. The ironwood trees, over-pruned, had lost their distinctive witchiness. A few new outbuildings had appeared – studios, I assumed.

For years, I’d followed news of the place online. I’d perused work samples of the various artists in residence – very few of them painters. Most seemed to make senseless movies, or to construct things out of unlikely materials – tent poles and Scotch tape.

When I got to the main entrance, I saw the ticket counter. It was rather surreal to have to pay nine dollars and fifty cents to enter what had been my home for eighteen years. A pretty young man with bunned hair handed me my pass, saying I was free to wander around the Center but that the guest studios were off limits. ‘We have to respect the artists’ privacy.’

‘Of course.’

‘But you can see the work of Clara Lavigne, one of our current fellows. She has an exhibition in the main gallery. Really amazing photographs – though not appropriate for children.’

I glanced beside me, wondering if my ghost had suddenly become visible.

‘I am quite alone,’ I said.

 

*

 

There were not many visitors that day, and despite their pious silence – or perhaps because of it – I had the urge to shout at them for trespassing. The shotgun Peter had kept by the front door was still there, though it now resided in a glass box. I rested my hand on the spotless surface, leaving fingerprints.

Moving deeper into the house, I saw that everything was largely unchanged – the furniture, the fixtures. An antique clock Peter had wound every night was blithely ticking on a shelf. The rocking chair I liked to sit in when I was pregnant was still by the same window, facing the gentle mound of Wasson Peak.

In the main gallery, Ballistoni’s former studio, I briefly took in the work of this Clara Lavigne. She had photographed herself nude, with cactus spines stuck in her flesh. The poses I imagined were meant to be sexual, but seemed more calisthenic, like stills from an aerobics class. And Ms Lavigne looked like she could afford to lose a few pounds. A brief perusal of her artist statement informed me of the woman’s spiritual drought and the lasting wounds of male puncturing. Oh my, I thought, hoping the dead could laugh.

As I walked down the long hallway that led to my old room, my heart seemed ready to attack me for the audacity of returning. Opening the little brown door, I expected to see my chenille-covered bed, perhaps my tattered pink slippers beside it. But the room was now being used for storage. There were cardboard boxes and piles of catalogues, a disconcerting tangle of unplugged extension cords.

The only object from my tenure there was a small agate ashtray that Peter often used when he came to my room.

I’d been living at the ranch for nearly a month before my host decided I was good for more than cleaning. That first night, he undressed slowly – and when he lifted my nightgown he did so like a doctor about to perform an examination. I was not a virgin.

‘Are you willing?’ he asked – a bit late, considering the fact that he’d already positioned himself, creature-like, above me. And though he looked straight into my eyes, I sensed he was using them only as windows, to peer at something else, something past my head – past the bed even, something deep inside the earth, perhaps. I was too frightened to move.

He visited me often after that, and the look was always the same. It was during these encounters I realized that the writing on his forearm was actually a mass of scars – a complex web of ridges that seemed almost artful, or at least intentional. When I finally had the courage to ask him about it, he pressed his fingers over my lips. The gesture was almost tender, but when, emboldened by the encroaching dark, I asked again – he put his whole hand over my mouth. ‘You ask me nothing.’

Sometimes, when he came to my room, he would say, ‘You are no one. You are not my wife.’ For a while I thought it was some kind of game – a fantasy of infidelity, sex with the housekeeper. But I soon learned the infidelity was real. I saw the photographs he kept hidden in a drawer. I saw the woman and the child – and I understood, as one understands such things without being told, that the woman and the child were dead. He mentioned a place once – Fossoli.

In our violent intimacies, he occasionally said things I couldn’t understand – often in other languages. Sometimes his accent was Italian, as it was when I first met him, but sometimes it sounded French, sometimes German.

His passport, I will tell you, was a forgery. His real name was not Ballistoni. You do not know this man, and you never will, no matter how many times you walk through his house.

 

*

 

Jana comes in with the tea, puts the tray beside me. She’s used the good pot, with the hyacinths on it. Neither of us says anything at first. She adjusts the pillows, helps me sit up. The curtains are open and the desert light falls in cantilevered beams, like the bones of some celestial dwelling.

I’ve known this girl a dozen years now, and they’ve passed too quickly.

When she finally pours the tea, it’s more of a gruel. And it smells vile. Yew berries and jimsonweed seeds. Jana found the recipe online – a witch’s brew guaranteed to stop my heart. On the tray there’s also a plate of cookies – Petit écoliers, my favorite.

‘Well, doesn’t that just sum up life,’ I say.

‘What’s that?’

‘A cookie with my poison!’

But Jana doesn’t laugh. Quite the opposite.

‘You don’t have to do this,’ she says.

But I do. I’m tired – and the pain’s too much. Besides, I remember how it was with Peter, who fought against the gods until his final breath. I won’t do that to myself, or to Jana.

‘Sit with me,’ I say.

There’s still so much I haven’t told her.

As she takes my hand, I don’t question her sincerity – though at the same time I don’t delude myself. Her loyalty, all these years, would never have existed without a man long dead, a man she’s never met. According to Jana, I’ve brushed against genius. Against history. For a long time, I think she believed there was some trace of it on my flesh – something that might rub off on her. It turns out she’s quite ambitious.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps, in the end, she’s simply here for me.

After we met in New York, I doubted that I’d see her again. Even though we’d exchanged numbers it seemed clear, once I was back in Tucson a few months, that neither of us would use them. Then, the following winter, she called.

‘Marion! Guess what?’

‘You’re getting married,’ I ventured.

‘No. Better,’ she said. ‘I got a fellowship at the Ballistoni Center. I’ll be there for three months. We can hang out!’ She sounded sixteen in her enthusiasm.

When I asked if the sculptor would be joining her, she said, ‘Who?’

‘Mateo. Your boyfriend.’

‘No. I’m not with him anymore. I’m too busy painting to have a relationship.’

Be careful, I wanted to say. Instead, I offered the lie the occasion called for. ‘Well, your paintings are excellent, dear.’ At her apartment, I’d been tipsy when I said I liked the piece with the purple squiggles. I made a mental note to drag it from my closet before her arrival.

Her residency was the following summer. She was given one of the larger studio apartments – its northern windows facing the ranch house.

She was ecstatic. ‘I can’t believe I get to work looking at that!’

For me, though, it was dizzying, to sit at the small kitchen table and see my old house in the distance – the porch light on at night, as if Ballistoni were still living there.

Early on, there was a welcome reception for the new fellows, and Jana invited me as her guest.

On a muggy July evening, twenty or so people wandered the grounds with stiff smiles and plastic wineglasses. I kept waiting for Peter to rush from the house with his gun, as he’d once done when a family of hikers had strayed onto the property. After a warning shot, I’d heard the blackbirds screeching, and when I looked out the window, I saw the hikers face down in the dust – two of them, children.

Jana and I wandered past the ironwood trees – the branches strangled by fairy lights. I paused there, staring at the ground, feeling ill. ‘What are you looking at?’ the girl asked. But before I could tell her she pulled me on, saying she wanted to introduce me to the director of the Center. ‘He should know who you are.’

I reminded her that I was no one.

When we approached the man, a short Latino with odd-shaped eyewear, he reached out to take my hand. ‘The artist’s mother, I presume?’

‘Just a friend,’ I said.

Jana nudged me, whispering, ‘Tell him.’

‘Tell me what?’

‘How lovely the property is,’ I said, smiling at the man, then scolding Jana with my eyes.

‘Well, if you’d like a tour of the main house, I’ll be leading one in about fifteen minutes.’ The director winked at us. ‘I’ll show you some of the rooms off limits to the public.’

‘That would be wonderful,’ I said.

As he walked away, Jana shook her head at me. ‘You’re too modest, Marion. You should be the one leading the tour.’

‘I don’t believe anyone cares about how I folded Ballistoni’s underwear.’

‘Did you really fold his underwear?’ She laughed. ‘Oh my god, what are you not telling me?’

I was suddenly furious. ‘Do you think this is a joke?’ I told her that my life was not a game for her amusement and profit.

As I headed toward the parking lot, she followed me.

‘Where are you going? Marion! Marion!’ – tugging at my dress like a child. ‘Will you come back tomorrow? Please. I want to show you what I’m working on.’

When I turned to her, there were tears in her eyes.

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ I said. ‘You’re a grown woman.’

But, of course, she wasn’t. She was an artist.

 

*

 

Childish, the lot of them. Childish and devious and, above all, selfish.

I remember Peter’s words when I told him I was pregnant. Not in my house.

‘I live here, too,’ I said. At that point, I’d been at the ranch nearly seven years and considered myself more than just the housekeeper.

‘Take care of it,’ Peter hissed – meaning, in fact, get rid of it.

When I refused, he punished me. He began to eat alone, on the porch. He stopped coming to my room at night. And during the day, when he worked, he locked the door to his studio. I think he hoped I’d just pack my bags and leave.

Despite his coldness, I stayed. I was in my late twenties then, and had grown accustomed to my peculiar life with Peter. And I suppose I was in love with him. I ignored him when he reminded me that the child would eventually have to go – that we’d have to give it away. Proper family, he’d mutter, as if to let me know we were no such thing.

It wasn’t until my seventh month that he softened. One afternoon, while tending to the garden, I toppled and fell among the cabbages. Suddenly Peter was there, reaching out his hand to help me up. The chaste kiss he bestowed on my shoulder was, I assumed, an apology – as well as a promise.

The next day, his studio door was unlocked – and for the last two months of my pregnancy, I was often there, on the daybed, watching him paint. In fact, that’s where I was when I went into labor. And it was Peter who delivered the child, with hands washed in turpentine.

Thank you, thank you, I kept saying – not understanding what was about to happen.

 

*

 

For a long time, I’d stopped thinking about the child. It wasn’t until I saw the painting again in New York that she returned to me – her magenta skin and lamp-black curls.

Then, of course, there was Jana, too. And, I won’t lie, I’ve often imagined her as mine. A twelve-year game of what if.

When Jana stayed at the Center, early in our friendship, I visited her almost every day. I was drawn to the place, like a shadow to a grave. After my sudden departure, the night of the reception, the girl and I made up quickly. I didn’t have it in me to punish her curiosity, her passion. Sometimes, in the small studio kitchen, I would make us dinner and we’d stay up late, talking. Despite my reticence, her questions never ceased. Eventually she wore me down, and I began to speak more about Ballistoni.

I gave her only half-truths, though; I gave her what she wanted. Stories of the great man at his easel, the music of his brush, the smashing of glass palettes in frustration, the problematic passages only a fingertip could solve. ‘Look closely,’ I said, ‘the next time you’re near a painting. You’ll see his prints everywhere.’

I didn’t mention that mine were there as well.

I didn’t mention Ballistoni’s visits to my bedroom.

I didn’t mention Fossoli, which I vaguely understood to be some kind of prison camp – though it was never clear to me whether Peter had been an inmate or a guard. His family, the woman and child from the photographs, had lived there too – or been held there. Only Peter had survived.

As for the scars on his arm, I never learned if they’d been someone else’s doing or his own. Either way, they suggested the same things: violence, torture.

Perhaps out of fear – or possibly gratitude for his not inquiring about my own family – I didn’t press him for answers. During his occasional ravings, which sometimes happened during sex, sometimes after a nightmare, I simply closed my eyes – a blank canvas he could stain with his profanities.

Peter had come to America after the chaos of war. It didn’t take me long to realize that the great man was sick, deranged in such a way that even kindness caused him pain. The first time I kissed him, he slapped my face.

But why tell the girl any of this, I asked myself during her stay at the Center. She had come there to paint, and I felt my primary job was to inspire her.

‘So what was his favorite kind of brush?’ she asked.

‘Russian sable, if he could get it. Sometimes hog hair. He couldn’t stand synthetics.’

‘I hate them, too,’ Jana said.

By that point, she was no longer painting her squiggles. In the little studio facing Ballistoni’s house, her abstractions had veered toward realism – massive oil sketches of crushed metal and broken glass. They were good, in a messy, obsessive way – the twisted metal scratched out with violent gauges from a palette knife; the glass finessed more delicately, like jewels or tears. The paintings were rather terrifying. I began to wonder if her parents had died in a car crash.

But I never asked.

 

*

 

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I went to see her first solo exhibition in New York, that I had a change of heart. The girl had proven herself to be an intelligent and confident artist. I was deeply proud of her, and it no longer felt necessary to feed her a diet of inspirational anecdotes and blandishments. Nor to tiptoe around her own story.

Jana was high on her success, and we spent our evenings in glittering restaurants, celebrating.

We were happy – and since happiness leads to a lack of vigilance, the past caught up with us.

She mentioned her mother, her father.

When she struggled to say more, I asked her questions, as I should have done years before.

And though her story wasn’t so different from how I’d imagined it, the telling of it was what mattered. We’d finally arrived at honesty. As she laid the tragedy of her childhood before me, I knew I would have to offer something in return.

We ordered a second bottle of wine, and after the waiter poured it I stared at the white tablecloth and told Jana about my first years at the ranch. I talked about the little brown door that could not be locked. I talked about Peter’s hand over my mouth. I was about to tell her about the child when she interrupted me.

‘So he just waked into your room like that? How old were you – like twenty?’

‘Twenty-two, I think.’

‘And he was – what – fifty-something?’

‘Very handsome, though.’

She grimaced and slowly pushed away her dessert plate.

I knew immediately I’d made a mistake. She was a woman of a different era, one in which my weakness was surely as contemptible as Ballistoni’s force. The subject was not one we could discuss with any subtlety. I felt cornered and strangely frightened. As I spoke, I was aware of the strain of my smile. ‘Haven’t you ever let a man . . .’

‘Let a man what? Rape me? No, Marion, I’ve never done that.’

‘Don’t be dramatic. He didn’t rape me.’

She tilted her head, as if waiting for me to do better.

‘I had nowhere else to go,’ I finally said.

‘At first, yeah – but weren’t you there eighteen years?’

‘It was Ballistoni,’ I replied. ‘You would have stayed too.’

‘No,’ she said, looking offended. ‘I wouldn’t have.’

The girl’s posture was suddenly militant, though she seemed to have trouble breathing.

‘It wasn’t always terrible,’ I said. ‘Sometimes he was gentle.’

‘Oh my god, Marion.’ She closed her eyes, shook her head. ‘I always thought of you as his muse.’

‘No – I was never that.’

When I tried to explain that Peter had suffered a great deal in his life, Jana stared at me. ‘What does that matter? His suffering is no excuse.’

I wondered it this were true. I had always told myself that suffering was the only excuse.

‘And what about you?’ she said. ‘Why would you allow him to do that?’

I’d often asked myself this question, but coming from the girl’s mouth the shame of it doubled.

And then she surprised me by saying, ‘They should burn his paintings.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. ‘You love his work.’

‘I’m just saying, he should be held accountable.’

‘He is long gone, my dear. And why punish the paintings?’

What she didn’t understand was that the paintings were not his triumph; they were his penance, his grief.

‘And you don’t know the whole story,’ I said. ‘My last ten years with him – ’

‘Stop.’ She touched my hand. ‘It’s too awful to listen to you defend him.’

We were the last customers in the restaurant. Three waiters dressed in black leaned against the wall like judges.

‘Is there no such thing as forgiveness?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, sadly. ‘That’s no longer useful.’

She leaned over and kissed my cheek, as one kisses an innocent.

 

*

 

I’m not a clever woman, and I suspect I’ve made a mess of things.

Peter always said a painting must have a center, a place for the eye to land. Il cuore, he called it – the heart – because it’s what makes the picture human. Makes it inhabitable. Even a painting of chaos must offer a bed.

I wanted to tell you about Jana’s kindness, not Ballistoni’s cruelty. But having put off my story for so long, I’m trying to say too much at once. Because now I want to tell you about Ballistoni’s kindness, as well. And then there’s my own cruelty to contend with. I feel confused, unable to find the pattern. Arrogance to think I could. I’m not an artist.

When Peter was ill, he said something I didn’t understand at the time, but which I understand perfectly now.

Death baroques the mind.

Already I can feel it shattering – the mirror in a thousand pieces, and each piece reflecting something different. Or perhaps the same thing, at different angles.

I can see every facet of that dreadful day.

Peter holding the child – a tiny creature, strangely blue, but covered in red pigment.

For some reason, he doesn’t put her in my arms. He wraps her in a dirty towel and moves toward the door. She’s crying, though the sound is odd, almost a growl.

I’m too weak to stand, but I try. The bed is sticky, covered in the same red pigment as the baby, whose limbs hang like flowers in need of water.

And then I realize I’ve made an error. It’s Peter who’s crying. The baby is silent, unreal, a doll.

What have you done? I want to say. But I have no voice. I fall into a dark hole, and when I crawl out again, the light is different. It’s morning. Someone has cleaned my body, changed the sheets. Peter is sitting before his easel, sketching.

When he turns around, I don’t understand his face.

He comes to the bed, kneels beside it. He takes my hand and kisses it. His kindness frightens me.

I ask him where she is.

‘Under the tree,’ he says, trembling. ‘Outside your window.’

‘Birdy,’ I hear him whisper – and then I realize he’s said bury. I can see the dirt on his shirt now, the sweat on his face.

When I strike him, he doesn’t move.

‘Why didn’t you let me hold her?’ I scream.

He pins down my arms. ‘You don’t hold the dead.’

His tears fall straight into my eyes.

‘You hold them,’ he says, ‘you never forget.’

 

*

 

Jana helps me lift the cup, hands me another pill. The tea tastes ghastly, like something rotting on a beach.

We’re in a desert, though. There’s dust on the bedside table, dirt under my fingernails. My head wobbles to the side to drink in the light from the window. I want to stay there, in that shimmering haze, which has always seemed to me the soul of this bleak landscape. Peter loved this light, too; tried, until his death, to paint it. It was, I believe, his only god.

After the child, he let me sleep in the studio. We lay side by side on the small bed, staring at the ridges in the tin ceiling. For weeks we lived in silence, as we had when I first came to the house.

Peter didn’t paint for nearly nine months, and when he started again it was in the fall, with a squash from our garden. Later, he put some green velvet underneath the vegetable, but decided it was too much, too precious. One afternoon, he grabbed some of the cash he kept in a hamper and began to burn it.

‘Help me,’ he said.

I joined him on the floor. In my memory, this is our wedding – the two of us lighting hundred dollar bills, then blowing out the flames. We did it for over an hour, burning more than was necessary for the composition. Kneeling beside each other, grimacing, we seemed to be saying the same thing without saying it. Nothing matters.

I think it was grief that finally married us.

But a few days later, when Peter put that final streak of yellow across the top of the painting, he made a sound – it was almost sexual. I knew then that he would always have another lover – that paint, to him, was flesh. Pigment mixed with oil, that mysterious process of glazing, layer upon layer, by which he brought dead things to life.

Of course, he never painted people – only vegetables and bricks and stones.

Sometimes, watching him work, I would grow furious. He seemed capable of stopping time for himself. He could paint all day, without pausing, making his little grunts. Burying his emotions, transfiguring them.

I was jealous. My feelings were not as easily dispersed from scrubbing a toilet or a window. For a long time, after the child, I was petulant and prone to rages. One night, I destroyed two of his paintings. I sliced them with a paring knife.

But I couldn’t stop him. The next few years were his most prolific. Every few weeks, shipments went off to his gallery in New York. He never attended the openings, of course. And on the rare occasion when a visitor came to the ranch, I no longer had to be told to go to my room.

Peter still came there at night, though not as often as before. And now he always used a condom. Every time he snapped one on, it crushed my heart.

Some days I thought of leaving – but how could I, with the girl buried in the yard?

When Ballistoni painted that mound of sticks – I’m sure you know it, the monumental canvas called The Ossuary – those sticks were from the ironwood outside my window. Not cut, but felled from a storm. I collected them, one morning, then dropped them before Peter’s easel.

He did not rearrange them, but painted them as they lay – and for that I was grateful. I never asked for much.

 

*

 

I can hear the girl scratching a pencil inside a notebook. I don’t like it. I’ve asked her not to write about me.

‘What are you doing?’ I say. My tongue feels heavy, my throat swollen.

‘I’m drawing you.’ She turns the page to face me.

‘Who is that awful woman?’ I slur, trying to smile. In Jana’s sketch, there are no concessions to vanity, or beauty. I look, in fact, like death.

‘I wish you’d start painting again,’ I tell her. She stopped a few years back, claiming she had more important things to do. These days, she’s wrapped up in her issues, her causes. She says she’s fighting in a war.

My story, I suspect, has been useful to her.

Still, I’d like to set a few things straight, before the tea finishes me off. I gesture for her to come closer.

‘Do you know,’ I say, ‘when Ballistoni first sketched that squash – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about him,’ she says suddenly.

Her anger startles me. But I can see she’s crying, too.

‘This is our time,’ she says, putting down her drawing.

I know she means the two of us – but I’ve heard her use the phrase before, in regard to women in general. Our time.

And so I keep my mouth shut. In many ways, I’m afraid of this girl. Why tell her things that would only make her pity me?

He was so much kinder than my father. I never expected better.

How could I tell her what I really believe? That love is always compromise.

Incredible that this girl is crying for a relic like me. I pat her hand, unable to speak. What can I give her? I wonder. What can I leave her with? If I tell her to be softer, I will have failed.

Maybe I should tell her what every daughter wants to hear. You astonish me.

When she leans down to hold me, I know she wishes she could carry me into her future. ‘Oh, Marion,’ she says.

But no. Marion is gone.

Marion, as the girl would say – is history.

 

 

Artwork © darkbuffet

Fires
The Governesses