The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  “The light’s about finished for today, Martin,” the other man shrugged. “The best light’s usually early. The rest is memory. Not like that bastard business you’re in.”

  So, Martin thought. Laura had talked about them. First she’d fucked this painter and then she’d told him about their marriage and their lives.

  “What’s that term movie people use for the last good light of the day?”

  “Magic hour?”

  “Right. Magic hour,” Trevor nodded. “Tell me, is that real, or just something you people made up?”

  “It’s real enough.”

  “Real enough,” Trevor repeated noncommittally, as if to weigh the implications of “enough.” “Well, if you aren’t here to murder me, why don’t you have a seat while I get us a beer. And when I come back, you can tell me if my Laura’s ‘real enough’ to suit you.”

  She had arrived professionally wrapped and crated, and when Martin saw the return address on the label, he set the parcel aside in the corner of his study. Joyce had always been an unpleasant woman, so it stood to reason that whatever she was sending him would be unpleasant. She’d called a week earlier, telling him to expect something but refusing to say what. “I wouldn’t be sending it,” she explained, “except I hear you have a new girlfriend. Is it serious, Martin?”

  “I don’t see where it’s any of your business, Joyce,” he’d told her, glad to have this to say since he didn’t have any idea whether he and Beth were serious or not. Still, it was something of a mystery how Joyce, who lived clear across the country, could have heard about Beth to begin with. Why she should care was another. What she’d sent him, crated so expertly against the possibility of damage, was a third, but all three mysteries together aroused little curiosity in Martin. That the parcel contained a painting was obvious from its shape and packaging, but he’d idly assumed that talentless, bitter Joyce herself was the painter.

  So he’d left the package unopened for more than a week. Beth had been curious about it, or maybe just intrigued by his own lack of interest. She loved presents and received a great many, it seemed to Martin, although the majority were from her doting father, a man not much older than Martin himself. Daddy, as she referred to him, lived in Minnesota with a wife his own age, and Martin, thankfully, had never met either of them. Beth displayed little urgent affection for her parents, though her eyes always lit up when one of her father’s packages arrived. “You never buy me presents, Martin,” she sometimes said, feigning complaint, when she opened one of these. “Why is that?”

  Whatever instinct prevented Martin from opening the painting in front of Beth, he was grateful for it as soon as he tore the outer covering off the skeleton of protective latticework. Seeing Laura there, just behind the crosshatched slats, he had to suppress a powerful urge to lock the front door and pull the curtains shut against the brilliant California sunlight. After she was uncrated and leaning against the wall, he’d remained transfixed for a long time—he couldn’t afterward be sure how long—and for almost as long by Robert Trevor’s signature in the lower right of the canvas. He didn’t need the signature, of course, to know that Joyce was not the painter. She hadn’t anything like this measure of talent, for one thing. For another, she never would’ve seen Laura like this. It wasn’t just his wife’s nakedness, or even her pose, just inside an open doorway, light streaming in on her, all other objects disappearing into shadow. It was something else. The painting’s detail was minutely photographic where the light allowed, yet it was very much “painted,” interpreted, Martin supposed, an effect no camera eye could achieve. Joyce would’ve gotten a charge out of it, he had to admit, when the spell finally broke. The sight of him kneeling before Laura would have covered both her trouble and the expense.

  “So what was it?” Beth asked when she returned from work that evening. He’d opened a bottle of white wine and drunk half of it before he heard the garage door grind open and Beth’s Audi pull inside.

  “What was what?” he said, affecting nonchalance.

  She poured herself a glass of the wine, regarded him strangely, then held up a splintered slat from the latticework he’d broken into small pieces over his knee and stuffed into one of the large rubber trash cans they kept in the garage. Had he forgotten to put the lid on? Or was it Beth’s habit to examine the trash on her way in each evening, to see if he’d thrown away anything interesting?

  “Something hateful,” he finally said, believing this to be true, then adding, “Nothing important,” as pure a lie as he’d ever told.

  She nodded, as if this explanation were sufficient and holding her wineglass up to the light. “Not our usual white,” she remarked, after taking a sip.

  “No.”

  “A hint of sweet. You usually hate that.”

  “Let’s go to Palm Springs for the weekend,” he suggested.

  She continued to study him, now clearly puzzled. “You just finished shooting in Palm Springs. You said you hated it.”

  “It’ll be different now,” he explained, “with us gone.”

  “So, Martin,” Trevor said when he returned with two bottles of sweating domestic beer, a brand Martin didn’t realize was even brewed anymore. He’d partially buttoned his blue denim work shirt, Martin noticed, though a tuft of gray, paint-splattered chest hair was still visible at the open neck. The man sat in stages, as if negotiating with the lower half of his body. “Have I seen any of your films?”

  “My films?” Martin smiled, then took a swallow of cold, bitter beer. “I’m not a director, Robert.”

  The man was still trying to get settled, lifting his bad leg straight out in front of him by hand, clearly annoyed by the need to do so. “When I was inside, I was trying to remember the word for what you are. Laura told me, but I forgot.”

  “Cuckold?” Martin suggested.

  Robert Trevor didn’t respond right away. This was a man whose equilibrium did not tilt easily, and Martin found himself admiring that. His eyes were a piercing, pale blue. Laura, naked, had allowed him to turn them on her. “Now there’s a Renaissance word for you,” Trevor said finally. “A Renaissance notion, actually.”

  “You think so?” Martin said, pressing what he felt should have been his advantage. “Have you ever been married, Robert?”

  “Never,” the painter admitted. “Flawed concept, I always thought.”

  “Some might say it’s people who are flawed, not the concept.”

  Robert Trevor looked off in the distance as if he were considering the merit of Martin’s observation, but then he said, “Gaffer! That’s what you are. You’re a gaffer.”

  Martin had to restrain a smile. Clearly, if he’d come all this way in hopes of an apology, he was going to be disappointed. The good news was that this was not—he was pretty sure—what he had come for.

  “Laura explained it all to me one afternoon,” Trevor explained.

  “Actually, I’m a D.P. now,” Martin said, and was immediately ashamed of his need to explain that he’d come up in the world.

  Trevor frowned. “Dip?” he said. “You’re a dip, Martin?”

  “Director of photography.”

  “Ah,” the other man said. “I guess that makes you an artist.”

  “No,” Martin said quietly. “Merely a technician.”

  He’d been called an artist, though. Peter Axelrod considered him one. He’d gotten an urgent call from Peter one night a few years ago, asking Martin to come to the set where he was shooting a picture that starred a famously difficult actor. It was a small film, serious in content and intent, and for the first three weeks the director and star had been embroiled in a quiet struggle. The actor was determined to give a performance that would be hailed as masterfully understated. To Peter’s way of thinking, his performance, to this point, was barely implied. Worse, the next day they’d be shooting one of the pivotal scenes.

  Martin found his old friend sitting alone in a makeshift theater near the set, morosely studying the dailies. Martin took a s
eat in the folding chair next to him and together they watched take after take. After half an hour, Peter called for the lights. “There’s nothing to choose from,” he complained, rubbing his forehead. “He does the same thing every fucking take, no matter what I suggest.”

  To Martin, perhaps because he could focus on one thing while his friend had to juggle fifty, the problem was obvious. “Don’t argue with him. He’s just going to dig his heels in deeper, the way they all do. You want a star performance, light him like a star, not like a character actor.”

  Peter considered this advice for all of about five seconds. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “David’s in cahoots with him, isn’t he.” David, a man Martin knew well, was Peter’s D.P. on the film. “I should shit-can the prick and hire you right this second.”

  Martin, of course, had demurred. The following week he was starting work on another picture, and Peter’s offer wasn’t so much literal as symbolic, a token to his gratitude. “You just saved this picture,” he told Martin out on the lot. “In fact, you just saved me.”

  The two men were shaking hands then, when Peter remembered. “I was sorry to hear about Laura,” he said, looking stricken. “It must have been awful.”

  “Pretty bad,” Martin admitted. “She weighed about eighty pounds at the end.”

  The two men looked around the lot. “Movies,” the director said, shaking his head. “I wonder what we’d have done if we’d decided to live real lives and have real careers.”

  “You love movies,” Martin pointed out.

  “I know,” Peter had admitted. “God help me, I do.”

  “Merely a technician,” Trevor repeated now, improbably seated across from Martin on the opposite coast. He’d already drained half his beer, while Martin, never a beer drinker, had barely touched his. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. In the end, maybe that’s all art is. Solid technique with a dash of style.”

  “I don’t much feel like talking about aesthetics, Robert.”

  “No, I don’t suppose you do,” the painter said, running his fingers through his hair. “Joyce told me she sent you that painting. I’d have tried to talk her out of that, had I known.”

  “Why?”

  “Because Laura wouldn’t have wanted her to. Funny to think of them as sisters, actually. Joyce always seeking vengeance. Laura anxious to forgive.”

  Which was true. Martin had seen photos of them as little girls, when it was hard to tell them apart. But by adolescence Laura was already flowering into the healthy, full-figured, ruddily complected woman she would become, whereas Joyce, pale and thin, had begun to look out at the world through dark, aggrieved eyes. When Martin had seen her yesterday, it was clear that not one of her myriad grievances had ever been addressed to her satisfaction.

  “So, Robert. How long were you and my wife lovers?”

  Trevor paused, deciding how best, or perhaps whether, to answer. “Why would you want to know that, Martin? How will knowing make anything better?”

  “How long?”

  After a beat, the painter said, “We had roughly twenty years’ worth of summers.”

  Right, Martin thought. The worst, then. Odd that he couldn’t remember whether Laura had ever directly deceived him, or whether she’d simply allowed him to deceive himself. He’d assumed that she needed this time with her sister each summer. That she never asked him to come along, given his opinion of Joyce, he’d considered a kindness.

  “A month one year. Six weeks the next. I painted her every minute I could, then kept at it when she was gone.”

  Yes. The worst. This was one of the things he’d needed to know, of course. “How many are there?”

  “Paintings?” Trevor asked. “A dozen finished oils. More watercolors. Hundreds of studies. The one Joyce sent you might be the best of the lot. You should hang on to it.”

  “Where are they?” he asked, then nodded at the studio. “Here?”

  “At my farm in Indiana.”

  “You never sold any of them?”

  “I’ve never shown any of them.”

  “Why not?”

  “She wouldn’t allow it when she was alive. Joyce kept the one you have in the guest room Laura used when she visited. Laura made her promise never to show anyone.”

  “She’s been dead for several years now.”

  “Also, there were your feelings to consider.”

  Martin snorted. “Please. You want me to believe you gave that a lot of thought?”

  “Not even remotely,” Trevor admitted. “Laura did, though. And . . . after her death . . . I starting thinking of the pictures as private. When I die will be time enough.”

  “So nobody knows about them?”

  “You do. Joyce. My New York agent suspects, and I’ve given instructions concerning them to my attorney.” He finished his beer, then peered into the bottle as if, there at the bottom, the names of others who knew about the paintings might be printed. “That’s what you should prepare yourself for, Martin. I’ve never pursued fame, but it appears I’ve become famous anyway, at least in certain circles. When I die, Laura’s going to become a very famous lady. Everybody loves a secret. In fact”—at this he smiled and put the bottle down, turning to look at Martin—“you might want to option the movie rights.”

  “Did you know she was dying?”

  “She told me when she was first diagnosed, yes. I painted her that summer, like always.”

  Martin massaged his temples, the tips of his fingers cool from holding the beer bottle.

  “She insisted. And of course I wanted to. I couldn’t not paint her. I would have, right to the end, had that been possible.”

  “Why?”

  “Why paint her disease, you mean?”

  No, that wasn’t what he’d meant, not exactly, though he was ashamed to articulate further. “Why paint her at all, Robert? That’s what I’ve been wondering. She wasn’t what you’d call a beautiful woman.”

  Trevor didn’t hesitate at all. “No, Martin, she wasn’t what you’d call a beautiful woman. She was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

  Yes, Martin thought. That was obvious from the moment he’d opened the crate. And his next question was the reason he’d come so far. “Why?” he heard himself ask. “What was it about her?”

  “I thought you didn’t want to talk about aesthetics, Martin,” the painter replied.

  That night, Martin and Beth ate by candlelight in the inn’s small dining room. The candles were a matter of necessity. The storm had blown up out of nowhere, or so it seemed to Martin. The sun had disappeared behind that first cloud when he’d arrived at Trevor’s studio; by the time he’d left, an hour later, the sky was rumbling with dark, low thunderheads from horizon to horizon. The painter, predicting that the island would lose power, had insisted that Martin take a flashlight with him. “Just leave it in the room,” he’d instructed. “I run into Dennis and Pat all the time. They can return it whenever.” When Martin smiled at this and shook his head, Trevor read his thought and nodded in agreement. “Island life, Martin. Island life.”

  He had walked with Martin as far as the gate, an effort that clearly cost him. “What’s wrong with your leg, Robert?” Martin asked as he lifted the latch to let himself out.

  “It’s my hip, actually. It needs replacing, they tell me. I’m thinking about it.”

  Martin remembered the battered table Trevor used for his paints, the broken leg he continued to prop under it. Unless he was very much mistaken, Trevor wasn’t the sort of man who put much faith in “replacement.”

  “You didn’t come to visit her,” Martin remarked—one last-ditch attempt at censure—after the gate swung shut between them.

  “No.”

  “You could have,” he said. “You could have shown up with Joyce, claimed to be an old friend. I wouldn’t have known.”

  “I thought about it,” Trevor admitted. “But I had it on excellent authority that I wasn’t needed. You rose to the occasion, is what I
heard.”

  In the distance, a low rumble of thunder.

  “That’s what our friend Joyce can’t quite forgive you for, by the way,” he continued. “Your devotion during those last months enraged her. Up to that point, she’d always felt perfectly justified in despising you.”

  “You mean I rose to the occasion of her death, but not her life?”

  “Something like that,” Trevor nodded. “But look at it this way. You got a damn good painting out of that woman’s need to punish you.”

  “I don’t know what to do with it, though,” Martin said. “I had to rent one of those self-storage units out in the valley.”

  “Air-conditioned, I hope.”

  Martin smiled. “It’s the only thing in there.”

  “I’d love to have it back, if you don’t want it.”

  “It’ll be even harder to look at now,” he’d admitted, though he knew he’d never return the painting to Trevor. “That look of longing on her face. The way she was standing there. I’m always going to know it was you she wanted to come through that door.”

  “Wrong again, Martin.” Trevor was leaning heavily with both hands on the gate now, letting Martin know that a handshake wasn’t any more necessary now than it had been earlier. It suddenly dawned on Martin that the man had to be in his seventies. “I was the one who did come through that door. You were the one she was waiting for.”

  “So,” Beth said, digging into her steak with genuine appetite. At least, Martin thought, she wasn’t one of those L.A. girls who always order fish and drink nothing but mineral water. “Were you worried about me?”

  “Yes,” he said. He’d been waiting for her in a rocking chair on the inn’s front porch, the sky growing blacker and blacker, when she came striding down the dirt path. She’d no more than sat down next to him than the air sizzled with electricity and the first bolt of lightning cleaved the sky.

 
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