By RA Campbell
“The use of the pinhole camera in contrast to modern day photography allows the artist something a little less automatic than advanced digital photography, and opens one to a world of imagination that only our ancestors knew rightly- a world in which motion stood still. It forces us to open up to the world as a fresh new image, not merely another manufactured click of the shutter, but a kind of grace only achieved from the remembered image. The cumulative value of the near static nature of the pinhole camera experience is that it allows one to reflect upon the contemporary within the context of a discoverable past. When you are in a room made into a pin hole camera the outside world responds to itself through you.”
This was the opening statement that described the photography journal Joel Parker created as a companion to his journalism class Masters of Light. To him the world was a camera- all experience poised to be captured, relentlessly moving beyond. The sheer speed of communications and the voracious habits of the international press had been surging through his veins for almost a decade. Beneath the clear blue skies of sunny Manhattan May morning Joel was gazing upon green shoots of translucent green gingko leaves hanging down in front of café Lalo on the upper West Side- when it suddenly dawned on him. He really was a civilian forever. By accepting a teaching engagement from a life-long mentor he was sure to be taking a trip to the summer arts place of his youth, forcing him to come full circle with an impending mid-life crisis.
While it was true his now hastily published book “Masters of Light: Keepers of Spirit” was unlikely to hit the New York Times best seller list, and an arts festival trip might help its prospects slightly, there was some more urgent significance to his acceptance of this new assignment. For years he had assiduously avoided Chautauqua- certain that his nostalgic memory of it could never be matched by the current day reality. Fear of being called nostalgic in art circles runs pretty deep and to a photojournalist the word nostalgic spells career death, conjuring images of work confined to formulaic press coverage in glossy coffee table magazines. On the surface the real motivation for accepting the western New York engagement was the moral obligation to cover a teaching post for a friend, but just beneath that obligatory stance were selfish motivations he would have to face. He was in a desperate retreat from the exigency of war time coverage, wanting to retrench some part of his soul that was incinerated on top of a pile of burning tires in the desert.
He didn’t like having to promote himself in art because of an ingrained feeling that this was selling out. It was alright in his mind to sell war photography to the highest bidder- it was mere journalism, but for fine art, he expected to be less mercenary. He thought for a moment about the drawing of the gingko tree with the street view behind it, trying to distract himself from last night’s sleeplessness. Lucky he left his camera in the bag- now he was forced to draw. It was unusual for him to draw a background without a character, but it was as warm and sunny a day as New York City can be at this time of the year- new spring hay fever season before the meltdown. That time when the city feels clean. The time of new adventures. It had been a year of insomnia, and pervasive nightmares of death by combat still dogged him since he returned to the US and begun teaching journalism at NYU and exercising the canvas arts in the hopes of healing Iraq wounds.
A decade before he had joined the military and served time-and then furthered his tour of duty to become an embedded photographer so that now his youth seemed a distant place. Before the smell of bodies and kills, street patrols, the undying heat, the sand in everything, endless searches and seizures-his college years stretched out liked like an imaginary eternity. He knew the value of great mentors on and off the field-yearned to become one himself. At thirty-five he could have been sixty- impatient as time in hell, he could not await recovery, or whatever they would call it. Despite taking on teaching, he was no closer to closure. Sitting outside of this Manhattan café preparing to add yet another sketch to his sketchbook reminded him of how little action he had in his life- which made the prospect for a road trip ever more likely.
It didn’t hurt the cause that the summer engagement might put him in contact with a love interest from his youth. The trip clearly represented something more to him than that singular possibility. This trip would wholesale re-immerse him into civilian life at its most sensitive-perhaps challenging his view of the world. He tried to convince himself that he didn’t need all these trivial emotions about the worth of the soul- and he avoided veteran’s events like the plague. The whole country was questioning the rush to war in Iraq, and hearing about government corruption did not make things easier. In some respect his work with the pinhole camera as a way to side step having to deal directly with the issue of photojournalism, as he felt more sickened by his Iraq photography that so many of his students admired, and yet would consider it a denial of sorts to undermine its value to the service men and women whom he felt close loyalty. But it was the right choice because freshly minted college students wouldn’t understand the war, and he didn’t have the patience to explain it to them; but they could understand how to interpret a moment before and after it passed through imagery.
As his dead buddy Collin said, “You don’t have to know the entire history to see that the Iraq invasion was one of the biggest tactical blunders in US history.” Still, he needed to get away from the New York media, books about the CIA, and the growing trillion dollar sink hole that produced little results besides great civilian casualty stats in the country. It was a lot simpler in pursuit of Ali Babar than coming home to identify the enemy to others. However convinced he was that he had enough experience, he dreaded returning to the center of gravity for normal people- the realm of everyday selfish feeling. Still, he remembered the long lost youthful love fondly, but was paradoxically embarrassed by its ridiculousness in the face of real world problems.
He found himself increasingly thinking of a scenario that would bring him full face with a woman whose absence hollowed out the upper cavity of his heart long before it became numb to personal feelings. There she was. Andrea Martin, permanently ingrained in his frontal cortex: beautiful, shinning hair, glowing milky tan skin- blue green eyes bright and laughing. Her perfect breasts that she did not even know were so astonishingly beautiful still monopolized a quarter of his brain cells. All this came rushing back to him when he thought of Chautauqua. In some respects, the darkness of years of war prepared him for this summer, but he had no way of knowing it, because up until this month he had still been absorbed in the images of his friend Collin Kennedy arriving in a casket stateside. Collin’s mother wept so profusely on his uniform, clutching him and pulling at his neck like she was drowning in a sea of melting wax.
“Why he should feel so fucking sad?” he thought to himself- for he was the lucky one- the one who escaped with a minor scrape and a free ticket to Manhattan. It was an excuse for his undeserving luck- especially since he went to the war with his own death wish. Somewhere he read it is only when one forgets the self that true growth can occur. His biggest fear was that she would see him as everyone else does- as irrevocably damaged by the war, using his art credentials to find validation. No, not Andrea. She would know better. What did he know: he didn’t even know her anyway. His blue eyes became soft at this moment, as he pulled his cap down over the close cropped dirty blonde hair and sipped his coffee, watching couples walk by. His camera gear, the Nikon DSLR with fully equipped telephoto lens, showed signs of wear, its lens pointing out of the bag begging him to give up the sketch book and shoot some street photos. Camera. War. Sketchbook. Peace.
The more intractable problem he thought was how long ago it was that extinguished relationship ended. The whole concept of traveling back to one’s youth is a recipe for disaster. The result was that this abrupt and seemingly tragic end of this long ago youthful relationship now seemed a mere footnote to his life as a writer, though “tragic” was a histrionic sentiment that had no relation to reality. He reminded himself that things were different, a thought triggered when he adjusted his posture and observed a young couple sitting across from him in the café that would become his next sketch. As he began drawing in light lines, he carefully adjusted his aviators to hide his eyes, while he watched his subject’s eyes intently to see if they had become aware of his actions. Years of drawing and photographing people in bars, cafes and battlefields conditioned the talent for cementing images in his mind without being observed. Life sketches-like photographs, were quick concentrated work, like pre-imagined sculpture. Remaining stealth was paramount. They were too involved with each other to even notice Joel’s sweeping movements across his pad-being intimate as only youthful lovers can be in public.
Really. This sort of thing was no longer the province of a serious middle aged artist- but sketching for an artist was like stretching for a runner, or writing for a journalist. Had to be done. It may be a transient kind of therapy without lasting effect, as it moved him beyond more thoughts of routine brain explosions that occurred every other time a delivery truck backfired-which in New York City was fairly frequent. In an attempt to bring back quiet, the stillness he could not find-the mindfulness he used to find any time he so desired. This trip he was contemplating was last the stop.
Though suicide loomed as one of the more reasonable options despite its inherently dishonorable nature, it was not that he wanted it for himself personally. He had begun to think it might be advantageous compared with the psychic strain he was enduring- and one wouldn’t call his state depressive so much as forlorn or worn out. He had not accepted a label for this problem, and refused to talk with anyone about it. No. He would never be a burden to anyone. Besides that: he didn’t want the military involved with it- as his record was solid and he intended to keep it that way. Fuck them. He convinced the doctors, despite his slight injuries that he had to return home. Colin was dead, and he needed to ride home with him to meet his family. He had a copy of his dog tags, and that was all he needed. Fuck them, what did they know of losing your best friend in a senseless battle.
Through the shroud of war memory, the kiss of lovers in front of him almost provoked him. So unconcerned with war was this pretentious spring love discovering itself. “One should heed our unfulfilled dreams only so much”, he thought as the young girl at the café buried her head of long flowing chestnut brown hair into the neck of her of her ever so slightly bearded slacker boyfriend’s neck. The cozy couple would have been about the same age as he was when the said relationship ended. He had never before found public kissing so objectionable. Though there was a higher level of public display than mere infatuation and there was no denying an enviable level of mutuality. His obsession with drawing hands was well known- he must have done at least sixty full studies of hands. Her hands were passingly beautiful, and he focused upon them in his drawing. Once his mind turned back to his own youth, recalling the departing of his first love, he had let down his guard-the couple sensed he was drawing them, and took off down the street.
He went back to reminiscing about his own lost love, and began to draw a fat man from memory.Although it had been almost fifteen years, he could still see her father in his mind’s eye, a portly general practitioner with a shiny bald head wearing preppy khakis, a maroon and white pin stripe buttoned down Brooks Brother’s oxford, admonishing him as he packed his daughter’s valise into the navy wood paneled Jeep station wagon. “We have finished talking, young man. My daughter is off limits. Do I make myself clear? You’re a dreamer Joel. Go find a girl in a bar somewhere, I’m sure any airhead will do fine.” With that the Dr. Martin ushered his tear faced Andrea into the car. She murmured good bye to Joel in a soft whisper, covered her face with her hands, and the car pulled down Simpson Avenue, and slowly made the left turn toward the bell tower. The summer was over. The country was still spinning from 911. The Iraq war had started, George Harrison was dead, and he enlisted. There was nothing he could do except glance at the New York license plate and gaze out at the strip of lake below. He drew the back of the jeep wagon from his memory, with Andrea’s head turned as he would have liked.
Now years later upon returning stateside, he used Facebook to track down his Andrea- Andrea Martin, aged thirty-four. It appeared that she had become a practicing physician like her father. He could not be tacky and “friend” her- a person from the distant past who knew nothing of his life. It looked like she had taken her father’s practice of pediatric medicine, and moved into the summer house of her parents. The Acadia. Joel remembered this part of Chautauqua fondly. As a summer community, Chautauqua maintained all of its landmark charm: it was a hidden gem of Americana, committed to its nostalgic framework, its aw-shucks realism, and belief in the spirit. Could he now having seen atrocity so close- gasping for air in the desert while blood flowed freely from an open wound of his buddie’s chest- and return to Pleasantville of Chautauqua? Was this mere escapism, or genuflecting to an opportunity he didn’t deserve? For whatever reason, the choice fell into his lap. Could the God he knew there ever forgive him for the things he had done since then? Is there some dispensation for soldiers that kill? That’s what they tell you when they bless the ships. For all of his education, he was on pretty soft ground in so far as theology was concerned. It wasn’t that he didn’t hope for an almighty being someone, but humans had created such a plethora of conflicting stories, they simply couldn’t be reconciled.
It was for this reason and his lapsed catholic status, that he ignored the religious aspects of Chautauqua, and thought about Chautauqua as a summer arts camp for youth, with art education attached to it. He was never completely welcome there without that religious component. And now, that would be more difficult. It was like some God damned Disney world compared to life of an embedded. By now the place had surely grown in sophistication and political complexity. Having received the shock of 911, Chautauqua- like the rest of the country- was probably now more engaged in grave concerns of a new bewildering frontiers in foreign policy. Chautauquans had a long history of pacifism, and it is hard to believe despite their patriotism, that much of what our nation was involved in sat very well with most of the summer residents. Still, there were surely wealthy among them who profited from the war, but many of those executives would only come for a few weeks in the summer. For Joel, he had spent summer youth under the influence of believers- people who were serious about their faith, but who were known mostly by their measured humility. No one accepted the death of the soul in this tiny hamlet, despite the onslaught of nihilistic political movements and vapid consumerism. The unadulterated spirit was sanctified in silent recognition daily. There was no return to innocence, but a nostalgic desire not to have to see the world- that horrible world that makes children die and suffer.
Even a belief in American Indian spirits was preferable to Chautauquans than the atheistic hordes. The spirit was supposedly the primary motivation to be at Chautauqua-not the vanity of a comfortable summer life. The teacher who brought Joel to the place for the first time when he was a teenager, did so to distract him from his father’s violent death. Chautauqua was a refreshing fountain that Joel might have imagined returning from after being the war torn reporter on the run in the Mid-East- but he had never thought of it in exactly those terms. In some way it was good that he had a good year of decadent easy living of the Manhattanite professor to let his anger simmer down. You can’t turn back into a civilian overnight no matter how many people cheer you on in the process. Even the free formed chaos of New York doesn’t touch the killing world.
For if he learned anything it was that God does not care about American wars regardless of what the average Joe thinks. God hates wars and generals- of that he was certain. Then wishing himself back into thoughts on this lost love, a dialogue ran through his head: “And God doesn’t care if you loved that women more than yourself, and lost yourself when she was gone. God doesn’t know that you went to war to forget her, that you were brave on the field but a coward at heart. Besides all this… That believing kid has been replaced. His soul snuffed out by an IED that tore through some other twenty-year-old who screamed himself to death. Damn! God Damned. Shut the fuck up.” He tried to smile briefly, to stay above ruining a perfectly good day, and thought about Andrea dancing across a stage. “What a dumb ass.”
From the above perspective it was a self-centered error to think that Andrea’s desire to remain secluded from the metropolitan world might have something to do with her memories of him. It was more likely that her interest in ballet drew her back to Chautauqua; or the moment was right in the post 911 world to find a small town and put down roots. His research revealed that Andrea Martin had been quite a significant donor to the Chautauqua Ballet School. While there was no reason to believe she had much more than vague memories of him, he clung to the idea that her emotional memory stored a place for him. Surely she remembered him in some way as a formative person in her youth? But when the memory of youth cannot fill in the gaps in our minds, sentiment tends to gloss the subject. In every film the flashback is more interesting than the current place of plot.
It always began with Andrea Martin, just nineteen, riding an old English bicycle on a late 1990’s evening in early fall; red and gold leaves of upstate Depew New York flooding her eyes, as she was coming home to her parent’s house outside Buffalo. Joel knew the road well; they had taken rides there many times before. Fall came suddenly for her this year, and the dying golden sun lit her tanned face and light brown hair with a warm glow-making her large blue green star filled eyes glow deep. The flowing cotton blue chambray dress floated in the air behind her moving legs, and pear sized breasts clung to her starched white linen shirt scented in lavender, open just so revealing a tear drop sapphire pendant at the nape of her neck. She was riding as fast as her mind was racing, gaining speed on the downward incline. Sky and trees fell forward in a rhapsodic kaleidoscope of crisp imagery.
There was a low swooshing of the wheels on the old English bike spun almost silently over the smooth macadam. How much she missed him, and how much she wanted to be together despite what her father said. She didn’t want to go to pre-med at Cornell, like her father, her uncle, and her brother. “Why does everyone in our family have to be a doctor?” It didn’t matter that she was accepted, enrolled and already had a week on campus- ballet was still in her bones. The only thing that reassured her about the rightness of Cornell was that her parents had fallen in love there. It was a dialogue Joel had heard. Her eyes were tearing in the wind of the ride, and what were just a few moments ago crystal like reflections of the passing leaves above, were now a lens pooled with soft haze. Those giant beautiful orbs looked on with an openness to the world.
Tears perhaps no more on account of her own love lost, or the certainty that she would never be a dancer-any more than it was the result of the cool fall air rushing to her face. The summer was fading into the distance, and she determined to brace herself against crying by thinking about her career and Cornell. Here Joel was always wanting to say something, but it was her dream at this point, and he had no control over it- except to hear her thoughts rushing by. “But it was no use”, she said as she was thinking of her father’s unkind words, of Joel’s hands, the last time they kissed, and all the evenings they spent this past summer. Gershwin as she had never heard it, the vibrant theater of veteran playhouse productions-the bitter sweet taste of fresh lemonade on the porch, all interspersed with kisses. The best kisses she had ever known.
Pedaling faster, her golden skin bore a few drops of perspiration above her brow. She needed to make time, as her parents were expecting her for dinner and it annoyed her father to no end if she was late- and so she pushed on faster. It was still a time when families had dinners like clockwork. Her brother would be there, coming back from Cornell, telling her how much she will like to be at the same school. He needed her to find him dates she thought and then laughed to herself as her speed picked up on the winding road. As she approached a bridge on a turn leaning into pull the final fast strokes from the old English. She swerved across the road. At impact a voice whispered to her: “no more pas de deux.” An old black Ford pick-up truck, rounded headlights, rusted grill, screeching brakes and she flying through the air set her mind on auto pilot, defending her last knowledge: “My name is Andrea, I’m a dancer… I believe in…”
Now her body was splayed across the pavement, she could see EMT’s from above-out of her body- were busy at work trying to revive her. The mangled bike at her side, blood stained her blue chambray dress and white blouse, bones protruding from her arms legs and ribs. Now not so much a person as a configuration- a body out of repose. The scraggly pock faced driver was untouched- an old man staring ahead from the beat up pick up in a drunken stupor, smoking a homemade cigarette, being questioned by a young cop. How could such a vile, ugly drunk have killed her, and not one moment of remorse. The EMT’s looked over, and gave the cop a signal. At this point Joel would begin to wake, and remember how Andrea made him the happiest guy in the world for one summer. Why did she always have to end in this dream on that ill-fated bike ride? Where did this image come from? Why did it start when he returned from Iraq? How could he ever stand to see this movie again?
The precipitating event to return from the land of his dreams was a phone ringing off the hook. He crawled sideways across his sleigh bed and received the call from Gale Francis Baker. Joel referred to her as Fran. She had taught oil painting to him years before at Chautauqua- in the same summer he spent with Andrea. “I hope I’m not disturbing you too early, but the college told me you were on sabbatical, so I’d figured you might be home.” Her raspy voice was familiar and comforting to Joel, but something seemed wrong. “Goodness Fran, no, how are you doing, you sound a little weak…” he said, looking at the clock. “I am quite so, and I’m going to have to forgo Chautauqua this year.” Knowing how much these trips to her summer home meant to her, Joel immediately responded in kind concerned about this news: “Sounds kind of serious, what’s going on?” There was an inordinately long pause. “I don’t want you to go postal on me, as I really didn’t know until recently, but the doctors say I have ovarian cancer, and not a lot of time.”
He paused to listen in shock, and she continued with a faint voice of denial- as if she knew what the words were, but not their meaning. At this point he wanted to cry a little, because this kind of death actually meant something to him. He checked dates on his watch, and the time it would be in Iraq. There was probably a dozen of our own killed today. He thought seriously about this moment, as he loved this woman more than his own mother, and he could feel her absence already. “I understand,” he said holding the phone cord and staring outside. “You can count on me Fran, whatever you need, just say the word.”
“I don’t mean to upset you Joel, What do the doctors really know- they won’t tell you because they’re lying for the insurance companies. They see an old lady like me and get dollar signs in their eyes. You know.” He sighed audibly into the phone, and braced his voice. “I’m so sorry, Fran, what can I do?” He replied feeling completely absurd in his suggestion. Like what the hell was he supposed to do? Tackle a guy before he gets hit by a bullet-simple enough. Cover incoming when someone runs through a line of defense- okay. But this… All this talking, and feeling- his head was swimming. “You know, I would prefer to die first, despite our ages… I think you could live better without me, than I you.”
Here Fran chuckled faintly at Joel’s well known sarcasm. He responded more seriously: “Do you want me to come over to your place?” “That’s so kind of you, Joel, but I think I’ll be okay holed up here alone, and hospice will come when the going gets rough. I did, however, want to suggest you as a substitute teacher for me. As you know you’ve been promising to revisit Chautauqua since you got back from Iraq, and this would be a great opportunity for you, besides putting my mind at rest. You know, I don’t want them giving the position to some phony postmodernist artist nailing string to boards. I need you to pick up the baton.” Joel laughed with relief- his veteran laugh that made Fran momentarily happy, and retorted. “I’ll do my best to destroy your reputation.” Fran replied: “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Listen, I’ll have my person send you all the details. In the meantime, keep drawing…” With that Fran hung up, and Joel leaned back watching news in the Mideast with the sound off- some fake news head was pretending to cover Fallujah. He thought to himself: “The network news- a bigger group of stupid, phony assholes didn’t exist anywhere-okay maybe excepting Scott Pelly. They always eased off the embedded reporters when things were going south.” He put his hands up over his head and looked long at the sanitized editing. Now was no different.
Two days later he adjusted his position in bed and looked up at the ceiling to his imaginary calendar, seeing dates and meetings being re-arranged all over the place. He had a running clock in his mind that kept track of everyday hourly by force of habit from the service. Grabbing the phone, he speed dialed Fran and started talking immediately without introduction: “I am deeply flattered by the invitation, even under such unhappy circumstances.” he said this while pulling out an appointment book to take notes. Regarding this job, as a protégé of Ms. Baker’s he did indeed have an advantage that he had never slipped into the post-modernist trends, of what they both jokingly called “fake art”. But it was really because Fran thought of him as a son, (having lost her son to AIDS in the 1990’s) that this honor was being bestowed.
This time she had a peculiar lilt to her voice during this call, as though she wanted to sound more cheerful than she was at the time. It didn’t have the desperation she had when she tried to convince him not to go to Iraq, but a more homespun voice, which should have been comforting, but rather alarmed Joel to the fact that she was dying. Joel’s mother had died when he was a youngster and Fran, having been a next door neighbor, was truly a surrogate mother. When his father shot himself, Joel was twenty-three and joined the army, and went to Iraq. Fran was heartbroken. But he had never failed to catch up with Fran on phone around Christmas, reminiscing, and recalling walks with her through the MET and Central Park.
He had thought of her more as a colleague since coming home, it wasn’t until now that she seemed to recognize that status. While it may have been an honor that she chose him out of her many successful grown students, he was deeply saddened by the thought of losing such a precious mentor, and wanted to project strength in the moment. As she filled him in on the contacts, and the timing of the workshops he began thinking: “Was it too easy to walk back into the gates of my boyhood, the returning prodigal son?” It was time for a road trip to the past-maybe it would be good to gain a new perspective, and vanquish the ghosts.
It was peculiar to Joel that a week after Fran’s call, he read an obituary for Andrea’s mother Gloria Martin. Paradoxically the original dream of Andrea was now not as disturbing to Joel as the recent appearance of Andrea’s deceased mother Gloria at the end of his dream- a dream that had be unaltered for years. Gloria Martin, unlike the doctor, had always liked Joel, but she was problematic and opinionated. When she started appearing drunken in his dreams with her dyed blonde hair and watery blue eyes, insisting that he find Andrea and marry her, it was a rather alarming occurrence. To have his long held dream of the innocent death of Andrea invaded by Gloria Martin, who smoked cigarettes and drank wine-which drove her health nut husband absolutely mad. She was a death omen, and a pretty powerful one.
Although combat buddies had warned Joel not to make too much of the resurgence of things before the war, with the transformation of this old dream, a new found desire came as a persistent calling that would not let go. He mused further: “shall it forever have been a dream, everything he knew, or thought he knew about Andrea?” Such imaginings are the domain of painters who have an overly active visual imagination. This story would not rest and seemed oddly catapulted into an unwelcome reality by Fran’s predicament. The last few times he had had the dream there was a final scene that appeared just before he awoke, only if he was in a deep uninterrupted sleep. He wanted to prevent Mrs. Martin from appearing, and he had. It was at this point that he heard murmuring on the verge of crying and felt himself at the back of a strange very old stone church. He was holding back a mustard colored velvet curtain, looking out to red votive candles, and the murmuring changed to the sound of wings flapping. A dove was cooing behind him somewhere, and there were gun shots, and a baby crying- and then people screaming in Arabic. For one reason or another, the occurrence of this dream stopped and it was replaced with the Gloria Martin episodes.
This confluence of two dreams and a new hard reality was interrupted only by battle nightmares. Packing soldiers into body bags as IED’s exploded white smoke, then black smoke, then yellow smoke- all the while people screamed in Arabic and blood ran from heads and limbs-these were the signature nightmares- so much so that the Andrea dream was a salve on the wound. The sadness and vagueness of the latter could never repress the violence and cold fear of the others. He realized that the noise and smell of war lives with you pretty much forever, no matter what you try. One gains a little distance over years, but it sits there in the brain waiting for a weak moment to check back in and bring you up screaming in bed. He had never been told the reason why he didn’t have such dreams overseas. It was stateside when the possession (as he called it ironically) really took hold. Perhaps his sleep was never deep enough, or the general exhaustion didn’t allow his subconscious to reflect and turn emotions to images to dreams. He was a fighter, and then embedded as an observer, which made him more vulnerable to this kind of problem- that is witnessing.
A week after Fran’s call Gloria Martin, Andrea’s mother, startled him again by visiting him nightly, apparently in competition with his Iraq dreams and it simply wouldn’t do. The first night she clucked in her smoker’s voice: “Why don’t you go see her, she’s loved you all her life, and has never forgotten you. The house is still there.” Gloria said looking sternly into Joel’s face, her cold faded blue eyes piercing beneath her now white shocks of hair. “You can never go back Mrs. Martin, what happened is over and you- excuse me for saying so- you’re dead, so you can’t control me.” Gloria gave one of her hearty laughs. “Then why are we having this conversation? The season will be over in a month or two, you have a red carpet invitation, so now you can’t miss seeing her once again.”
Whenever he awoke from this dream, Joel had an anguished look on his face and beads of perspiration that belied his earlier dismissal of this spirit. AK 47 shots were muffled in the background, and then growing louder, then sometimes random children and women screaming in Arabic. A snippet of the Gloria dream came forth, then retreated into the fog of war. She laughed mockingly at him: “Little Joel, who ran off to war to grow up, and relived his one and only love in solitude. Yes, young man, I can hear every thought you have, and now I really must insist, you go to see my daughter.” Was it the determined persistence of these dreams that drove Joel to Chautauqua… or was it a comfortable fiction to justify his ends? Then he awoke and went through his Iraq closet, looking at the things he brought home. Pictures. Bullets. Things. Scents. He smoked a cigarette from the pack taken from Collin, the friend he could not save- a ritual he had only done on the anniversary of his death. He was at an odd distance from himself, letting things go.
The season was just beginning, and Andrea Martin rested a moment and began her Pilates warm up session in her office of the Acadia, her spine completely straight holding her head at attention and listening to the dance music from the current ballet. This was the first piece of the season, and she had inherited Don Quixote, because of her deep performance knowledge of Balanchine from her youth in New York City Ballet. She was subbing for one of the official dance instructors from the Chautauqua School, and felt a little self-conscious about the fact that she wasn’t either a current school or a Charlotte Ballet company instructor. Andrea had raised significant funds for the ballet, and she was the official Chautauqua dance doctor, usually on call in case of injuries. It seemed like a natural fit for her to sub when one of instructors, Anna Maria Pacino, took a fall and injured her back. It was Anna Maria who made the appeal to artistic director Beauchamp for Andrea to be given the opportunity, as Andrea had done wonders for her in physical therapy. It was just a school production, but it was nevertheless a great honor, that would not have been bestowed had there not been a more complex history.
The artistic director, Marcel Beauchamp, knew and respected her background, and for years she had told him she’d love to get back into the dance scene. The Martins were old friends with Beauchamp, and early on in the ballet’s connection with Chautauqua, Gloria once had a severe crush on him. Andrea’s father once referred to this derisively as the “summer of love”. But it was well known that the “affair”, was only in Gloria’s mind, and Beauchamp remembered Andrea’s first and foremost as a promising dancer, who chose medicine over ballet. She had always kept form, and was very supportive of the Chautauqua School in many ways beyond her role as the company doctor. Beauchamp was a very capable administrator, though perhaps not the most innovative of dance curriculums, the Chautauqua summer dance program glistened because of its attention to the prospects as people, not merely dancers. There was an overwhelming concern for the maturation of dancers, and this emphasis on child and adolescent development was what made Andrea its biggest booster. The attention to the inner spirit of dance was something she was still working on, but others were there to help. She had just enough time after a brief warm up at home before taking her bike to the studio.
This season brought an unusually good crop of dancers in Andrea’s mind- not yet jaded by the grueling New York scene, but not completely wet behind the ears- very sophisticated in their own rights. Andreas dirty blond hair tied back in a ponytail, had just a hint of gray, and physically she was in fantastic shape, adding to her youthful looks. With the long lean muscles of a dancer, she stretched her legs one more time and collapsed her chest fully, touching her toes, and slowly extending backward while exhaling. The music had her imagining the steps of her dancers in her mind, making mental notes of what she had seen in the pre-dress rehearsal that she could go over with them before this individual session prior to the performance. She performed the critical steps as she would like them, her feet gracefully moving over the matt installed in her workout room that looked out upon the lake. She could see a man swimming across the lake at a good clip towards the bell tower.
When Andrea left New York City Ballet School years ago to go to Cornell Med School- practically on her father’s commands- she first went upstate to establish her practice, but to her father’s surprise, she suddenly switched gears and took to living in Chautauqua year round, instead of staying in Buffalo. Her full retreat from both cities came after her mother died of cancer, and wasn’t in his plans. Dr. Martin was used to getting his way with his only daughter, and his wife’s death signaled a big change in his life. It would not be long before he passed away, and in his final years he had become increasingly stubborn. His was the last generation not to bother with the internet, computers, and all the gizmos of the new “information age”, and he was a true Luddite. It might be said, that Dr. Martin gave up his practice precisely because the rise of computer technology.
The irony was that once MD was placed after Andrea’s name, she no longer seemed to follow his edicts. No one knew how lonely she had become, but she took her father’s life philosophy to heart: “When the personal life is in turmoil, bury yourself in work, and recoup your spirit. God will forgive most any weakness if you truly believe in the power of the spirit. Know he is always here to protect us.” She was never so certain of her father’s belief in God. It was the day her mother died, and he hugged her so tightly that her ribs were sore for a week. When her father died, after having been run over by a driver while riding the old English bike on the lane near their house, there was nothing keeping her in Buffalo but a few old school friends from Depew. It was an odd irony that while she had ridden on that road many times, it was her father who, on a lark rode out the lane to his demise. She returned to her stretching and attended to a set of yoga like exercises that prompted her full concentration.
Though she initially viewed the Acadia as the summer house of her parents, now she was a year rounder which made her life different. Some of the vacation nostalgia drifted away for her. Almost all the guests at the house each year were dancers or actors in the various Chautauqua companies. Some were short term visitors, others were life-long seasonal friends, but with rare exceptions the younger students were guests in the dorms. Her practice as a pediatric orthopedic specialist in Jamestown was professionally consuming, but dance was still her real emotional life. She had come close to marriage once, but had given up on a long distance relationship with a professional dancer in New York- who despite his exceptional beauty and talent was a “real egotist” as her father would say. No one had ever been good enough for her in his eyes, and frankly she was so busy in her double careers that she didn’t have much time for men.
Most of the same pictures of her relatives adorned the walls, seemed to talk to her- or was it so that she kept people alive on her walls would talk to them on occasion. Now she remembered: “Oh, Daddy, you said surgeons were the real egotists, not ballet dancers.” She said while looking at the picture of her father and author John Barth holding fish up that they caught. She’d hear him in her mind, and when she had a hard time with one of the surgeons at Jamestown over physical therapy for one of her dancers, she recalled her father’s comment. She was proud to have inherited the small town general practitioner demeanor of her dad.
She had made the Acadia a Victorian painted lady of first order, decorated like a French country house inside- the furnishings and art work primarily reflected her interest in dance. Having finished her afternoon routine, Dr. Martin went to her office surrounded by anatomy charts, computers, scales, examining tables and checked her calendar. This part of the house had not changed significantly for many years. Her father had appointed the place well for his own practice, and the few older patients she inherited from him, seemed to like the fact that she didn’t radically alter the layout. She checked her appointments online for the coming week at Jamestown General.
The hallway where she had grown up walking quietly by as her father saw pediatric patients during the summer break, was lined with the growing up photos she wanted to remove. Things were quieter then, she thought, and Chautauqua was sleepier. Here, she had met her first summer friends at the Boys and Girls club, and listened to music from the amphitheater on the porch. The house was grander in some way since she restored it, but it didn’t have the family feel her parents had imbued into it. What replaced that was a series of miniature performances: with opera voices, actors talking, and aesthetic conversations her parents never would have had. In the apex of the season, the rooms for guest’s upstairs were filled with artists, and sometimes the parties were considered wild by Chautauqua standards. Between Andrea’s split focus upon her practice and on physical work for her students, it took her guests a little while to realize she wasn’t the average inn keeper- if there was such a thing anymore.
She looked down at the blotter calendar and saw “Joel Parker” written in her own hand for the day. When she heard of Joel Parker coming to Chautauqua from one of her friends who speculated about the writer / painter, without knowing Andrea had previously known him. Admittedly his Iraq exploits raised her curiosity, as she could hardly imagine the young blond boy of her youth as a soldier, but she hadn’t seen him in years. There were two of his books on sale at the Chautauqua bookstore- one on Iraq and one on painting. Over time Andrea remembered that Francis Baker had been close to Joel after her son died, but that was the extent of her knowledge. She had some pictures of the two of them taken in a booth at a carnival that she kept in a Chautauqua scrapbook- the last of her ballet youth. Andrea attempted to find out if he had married. Perhaps her father, though he had been decidedly wrong about Joel’s career, had also been wrong about their relationship. No doubt it was a youthful infatuation, and he lacked the constancy to be “her man” as Pops had said. It was getting annoying thinking about it all, despite her original flush of excitement.
Joel looked up to the ceiling, single in a big bed, happily estranged from his teaching on war journalism at NYU on sabbatical for the summer and the fall to complete a large installation in Manhattan and accept engagements for his book tour. He had fallen into a rather comfortable routine. Most mornings since he left the reserves he got up wearing sweats ready to run, denying middle age as he ran through Central park. Once he got back he would put a pot of coffee on, or go to Lalo’s in order to draw and write in his diary crazy words and images he would never publish, and then he would hit campus and use his office to write. Teaching undergraduates was an interesting break from the war, but even though he loved teaching so much of his days felt hollow, in constant need of being filled. It is not that he wanted to discount their youthful experiences, but what seemed important to them lacked urgency. There was more action in two nightmares than he had all week with these kids. The lightness of their souls was a great resource; most of them had not been scarred in a serious way, and were almost oblivious to death.
“This summer would be the perfect time to take off, and I’d return by fall” he thought as he stripped down and stepped into the marble shower turning the water on and waiting for warm. Perhaps the vanity of youth had disappeared, but an impartial observer might find his lean muscular six-foot body attractive. There was the matter of the scar from a second degree burn on his upper arm – by Iraq terms that would be slightly marred in military experience. But his well-toned frame was still able to lift his own weight and run six miles without a thought. He represented the rare find among journalists: someone who had been through basic, war, could handle a weapon, and write a complex sentence.
This morning the swirling vision of the Chautauqua amphitheater came to his mind as the warm water hit his head, and he lathered up briskly covering his body methodically, all the while considering his options. “You’ve been spoiled Joel, with all this Manhattan luxury. Telling war stories to kids who don’t even get it. You need this trip to focus on art and truth… Art and truth… listen to the bullshit fly,” an admonishing interior voice who knew him so well chimed in without missing a beat.
He shaved his face and rinsed off under the water, now starting to wake up and forgetting dreams from the night. He drew himself forward from behind the opening glass shower door. Seeing his body up-close in the bathroom mirror reminded him that giving up the Reserves would soon make him soft. He was pretty annoyed with the idea of getting old-no absolutely angry about it. He fought off a flashback for a moment. “Shithead. No war images today. No one understands you- no one ever will- so just stop it.” He took a deep breath, threw the towel onto a hook on the wall, and stepped towards the bedroom padding the floor with his bare feet. Suddenly he felt a chill on his skin and became aware of a presence. It was Esperanza, the twenty something house cleaning lady who was supposed to come this morning, but he had forgotten all about her. Because he trusted her so, he had given her keys, and late last night had texted her with the singular message: “can you come over and try to make my place look like a person lives here.” To which she replied: “I will and you do.”
He saw her at the end of the darkened hall and stood quietly for a moment taking in her image as she was turned away reaching into a bucket of flowers on the floor. She was listening to music on her headphones, and unaware of his presence. Dressed in dark blue jeans and a light blue jean shirt, her cocoa skin was warmed by the reflection of the pile of fresh yellow and orange tulips. She intently cut and arranged the flowers in the big crystal vase. There was a portrait. He would have to ask to paint her at some point, and wondered why he hadn’t done so already. Why he had not acknowledged her beauty before this moment was a mystery. He stood with folded arms over his chest, and then involuntarily stepped forward- contrapposto. The early morning clouds shifted suddenly outside and a shaft of sun poured down in through the hall skylight between them, which made her turn and look up at once from her work.
By now she was staring at him and stopped arranging the flowers. A little startled at his presence, her eyes ran over the front of his tanned athletic body. She noted the smoothness of his skin, muscular biceps, and athletic waist. His slightly protruding pelvis guarded a flat toned abdominal area well defined like a classical anatomical drawing. The taut thighs of a distance runner protected his sex. She blushed, and quickly refocused attention on the flowers- her hands gently wrapping around the tulips, pushing them next to sprigs of lavender. “Now what,” she thought for a few seconds looking towards him. The combined effect of his bodily details and frozen stillness gave her the impression of a statue coming to life. The clouds passed over head darkening the hall briefly, and then lighting him up when she looked upon his face his two blue orbs staring at her. Unbeknownst to her he was engaged in visualizing a painting of her, carefully making observations about her proportions.
He thought it would be so easy to imagine her as a kind of Latina Madonna figure, but that would rob her of the humor- and trivialize her identify. Gazing at her elegant shoulders and long neck strewn with pearls, he set a palette in his mind. Impatient to move beyond this impasse, Esperanza removed her headphones and cleared her throat for a moment, glanced up to his eyes which darted again from fixing the flowers. It was too late to save face as she crinkled her nose at the heavy scent of testosterone laced verbena that came from his body. She thought for a moment that he seemed pretty oblivious to this compromising situation- but his eyes that were fixed on her hands, moved over her body. It was more than either had bargained for this morning, and she felt a little dizzy. He was really someone she had never imagined in that way, being more like an uncle or business partner. On reflection it was expected in some way, as she felt sure now there was always a sublimated attraction between them, but she still found it troublesome. He had barely moved in the past minute or two, but stood frozen, awaiting her response.
She smiled slightly as she looked down towards his crotch said to him: “Who is this underwear model guy acting like a trained seal? How did he take the place of my once unassuming and polite gentleman client?” Finally, the embarrassment turned to him and he blushed quite red all over- as he collapsed his pose to stand flat footed trying to catch his breath. “Sorry I got carried away watching you, and completely forgot,” he said, stepping backwards clumsily out of the hallway stuffing himself into his briefs. He leaned his head back out and said: “The unexpected arrival of a pretty woman in the middle of morning preparations will do that.” It wasn’t a very convincing argument, but she felt it better to accept it for now and move on. He was looking at the shirt and jeans he might wear laid out on the bed. By now she had advanced down the hall victorious, and with hands on her hips smiling, admonishing him like a bad little boy. She looked down and quipped comically. “Yo creo que el toro salió de su pluma.” His Spanish was rusty: but good enough. “I think the bull got out of his pen.”
She trotted down the hall gliding her hands on her backside in such a sensuous manner that left him even more embarrassed for his clumsy exposure. In one sense he was more aroused by her proximity at this point, as there was more beauty and imagination in this single gesture than his entire naked body. He thought for a moment that he would face a whole convoy of terrorists for her. He looked back in the mirror, and in disgust he exclaimed rather loudly: “Dumb bastard.” As he put on jeans and a t-shirt she was gone from the hallway with a boisterous laugh. By the time grabbed his running shoes, he was cursing his own stupidity. “I guess I’ll make the coffee,” she said in a sing song manner as he hurried through his thoughts alone in his room.
That was what all this was about. He was alone. He had his private war that kept him from meeting women. It was obvious. All this made him think of how true this was-this lonesomeness he had parceled for himself in the midst of war and journalism. He sort of knew women, but they all perceived him the same way: the sardonic soldier who observed civilians, and would probably end up an unhappy warrior. It had been a long time since he had thought of relations with women at all. “You don’t know love from squat,” Collin used to say. Boy was he right. Joel was pacing for a moment in his room, trapped in the dialogue that was going on in his head. Why was he so worried, it is his place after all. Still, it wasn’t good. He really didn’t mean anything, it just sort of happened to him. She knew better. Relax,it will be fine.
Maybe before Iraq he would have tried such foolishness, and thankfully Esperanza knew him well enough to see beyond what she called the Gringo effect. Apparently men were always coming on to her, but she’d become rather blase about the whole thing. She made it easy for him to save face. “We are better than that,” she said to him when he served her the coffee she made in the kitchen a little later. He replied: “I know, you are totally right,” he said holding his cup and trying to recover some dignity. Perhaps she should have been angrier, but she had grown up as the only girl in a family full of Hispanic boys who revealed themselves accidentally on more than one occasion. She was merely curious about certain anatomical differences among men, and not attracted in any real way to their physiques. As she looked at his jeans for a moment, she thought it was men’s eyes that attracted her. His just didn’t do much for her- they were too pale. She also knew he needed the confidence of her friendship and organizational skills more than an empty lover.
Despite being a solid client, he was now even more strangely like a boy to her, as she looked at this muscular arms- one tattooed in vain attempt to hide his burns. In the past given his war experience- which could make him cold and distant- in some way she was relieved to see him so vulnerable. “You are the best E,” he said: giving her a friendship hug. “Remind me to give you a raise-again.” “Oh after today, I will,” she snorted, flashing a grin of perfect teeth that glimmered behind her sensuous lips. He looked on at her almond eyes surveying his emotions. She was worth every dime, and more- a good egg, a wise soul, and person of great warmth. How stupid he had been to endanger their professional relationship. “Give yourself a break. Go find that love in the country Joel- New York City will still be the same filthy crowded jungle when you come back.” “What about you?” He said beguilingly. She retorted: “No denying you have a nice package, but you’re not my type- and besides, you’re way too old!” she said slapping him on the shoulder.
He retorted: “Maybe I’ll make it up to you with a painting… before you turn into an old crone!” When he said that he wanted to laugh cruel, but he hadn’t felt that way ever about her. It was a weird way to relate to a woman for the first time on stateside, but it reminded him of his past before the war. He had not bothered thinking about women at all since returning- even though Francis tried to hook him up with people at the university. Technically this part of his brain was turned off. Now it was officially the end of a cold spring thaw, right at the beginning of new summer, and this had turned his mind back to the subject of women. It was definitely time for a road trip- to rediscover the world. Off to Chautauqua.
The summer season had turned the corner but late rains had induced rich, lush foliage, that now was reaching for the sun, and JOel felt no emotional reckoning as he pulled up to the gates in his well-worn black BMW road car. He remembered that the last time he came through those gates, he had to take a long bus ride from Buffalo to get there. ” Welcome to Chautauqua, Mr. Parker.” said a well-dressed, lanky early thirties African American man sporting a bow tie that matched his bright brown eyes. One could easily see why this man had been chosen for the job of greeting people upon entering the institution. His gentle smile, and slight South Carolina accent immediately put guests at ease. “This is your gate pass, if you stop at the main building, Ms. Sullivan will get you properly settled.”
Here I glanced down at the first edition copy of “Masters of Light”, the book wrapped in gold paper, looked at the name card on it, and without hesitating, handed the gift to the gatekeeper. “And you must be August Thompson,” he said shaking his hand. “Indeed I am, sir.” “This is for you. I hear you are a fellow painter.” “Why thank you… I’m flattered that you would consider me so.” He said this smiling even wider than he had before, taking the package in one hand and waving him through the gate simultaneously. “Glad to see you’ve arrived safely,” he said. “I’ll see you in class,” as Joel saluted him and drove into the grounds.
Mr. Thompson was genuinely surprised, for usually guests were astonished by his trick of foreknowledge of their identities-though it was merely a matter of knowing the license and make of the car belonged to someone on the priority guest list. As for Parker, he had asked if any staff members liked to paint, and was given a list of student names to gift signed copies of his book. The name tag Thompson wore gave him away, as Joel had already committed the class roster to memory. Rather involuntarily Joel had a flashback to the dream that brought him to this quiet hamlet in New York. He pulled the car over and closed his eyes for a moment, and made one last solitary remembrance of his friend Collin whose picture was taped to the side of his dashboard. “I’m doing this for you Collin, I’m living anew for you my man.”
It must have been Miss Jessica Sullivan who now stood on the steps of the main building as he pulled up. She was finishing up a cell phone call that must have come from Thompson, and upon seeing Joel in the car, gave a slight smile and a reticent wave, and then suddenly drew her hands in front of herself, clasped beneath her waist. She was of medium stature, slightly Rubenesque wearing navy pants with a black embroidered vest, and cream cotton oxford shirt, a neatly trimmed by a Hermes scarf-her reddish brown hair tied in a French braid, decorously declaring her cute button nose and Pear’s soap girl demeanor. Miss Sullivan had attended Harvard, according to the internet. Though she intimated on the phone that it wasn’t clear why she obtained the degree she had obtained, she had the confidence of a solid liberal arts education, and the posture of a good Irish Catholic upbringing. What he would later learn was that she had recently learned to obscure her true emotions, which made her seem more sophisticated-but it was a skill she was still perfecting. He had a generally good effect upon women until he started talking, so he tried to limit himself to pleasantries.
When he stepped to the curb she graciously shook his hand, with cool smoothness, and turned her head towards my over-priced foreign car briefly with a slight whiff of disapproval, but then beamed a smile that was joyful and sincere simultaneously. “Right on time. I do so like that Mr. Parker. Welcome to Chautauqua. How was the trip?” she said, adjusting her vision directly into my eyes intently. “Not bad, I confess my knowledge of Western New York is not what it should be, quite beautiful country.” As they headed up to the main building doors, he began to feel very cosseted, and was glad he took the second gift wrapped book with him. “We like to think so, I have made arrangements, as I mentioned, for you to stay at the Carey in Fran’s room: The Gershwin, You know Gail Francis Baker had the greatest things to say about you! I do hope she is feeling better. At any rate you will be at home in her room at the Carey.”
Here Joel nodded silently, not really sure what Fran had told them about her illness. “Well, we consider getting you on such short notice to be fortuitous.” He looked closely on at her beautiful teeth. “I’m so honored, I can take this off my list now. Here is a little bit of shameless self-promotion,” he said, handing her the second gold wrapped copy of his book. “Thank you, I’ll have to make sure you sign it for me!” “It is autographed already, Miss Sullivan. Nice meet you after all the email and phone stuff.” She was blushing more than a little when she replied “Me too. Goodness: an artist who can also write. This is why I love my job!”
Then she took my arm and turned him away from the door, and with the most disarming British accent you’ve ever heard she softly said: “Let’s walk it, shall we, and have a spot of ice tea at the Carey.” He looked back at his car for a moment, and suddenly from around the corner came a young man, galloping towards them almost out of breath. Jessica intoned: “David, you’re a little late… come meet Mr. Parker, he’s a famous painter. Joel, David works part time as the main building valet, though you are more likely to find him practicing dance steps around the side of the building, than attending to our guest’s cars. Give him your keys, he’ll park the car at the Carey for you.” David beamed and shook his hand, and took the keys, as Joel was looking circumspectly at him: “David Batz, pleasure to meet you. Oh, don’t worry sir, I’m a cautious driver, the speed limit here is 15 miles an hour.” “Thank you David,” Joel said smiling back at him-trying not to notice his absolutely perfect body that displayed itself like some rare dancing gazelle. Jessica beamed at David as if to silently signal for him to run along… “Come along Joel: you’re in Chautauqua now, no one cares about cars.”
It was a short walk to the Carey, but by the time we got there, a large crystal pitcher of iced tea with fresh mint was waiting on the porch, and Jessica prompted me to sit on the wicker furniture, she excused herself to thank the Carey Staff. When she returned I was staring absently out onto children playing some peculiar game on the street- it was made up, but it had rules. She sat down without me hearing her. “Is there anything finer than sipping tea on a porch in Chautauqua?” she asked. It was true, but I still thought I could top the present moment. “Sipping B&B at the Parker House as fresh snow covers Tremont Street in Boston. Harvard, I hear…” I said with a sly glance as she started to sip her tea as well.
After a brief gulp, she daintily put her hands to her lips: “Correct sir, and you were Yale.” “I was an unlikely Yale student my adviser said: Parker you’re a writer-artist wannabe,” I said laughing. “You’ve proved him wrong, I suppose. I was on the ten-year plan. I think I liked the idea of going to Harvard more than finishing. Truthfully Yale is more renowned for the real creative folk- isn’t it?” she said running her finger around the edge of her glass. I replied: “It sort of goes by decades. For me military service changed all that- I stopped seeing the world through the arts. You are young, so mortality hasn’t occurred to you quite fully- once that occurs you won’t be as impressed by contemporary artists and writers.” She laughed with innocent abandon at my cynicism, and patted my hand. “I haven’t read your war book yet, but now that we’ve met, I’ll have to dig into it as well.”
We bantered for another twenty minutes or so, and when Miss Sullivan disappeared down the lane, I went into the hotel and noticed my bags were waiting at the concierge desk, with keys in an envelope attached to them by a red ribbon, and just as I was to pick them up to go to my room another young man appeared to assist. I took the envelope with a message in it, and gave him the keys and five dollars, and told him I would go up later, and to leave the keys at the desk. He thanked me and announced to the desk that I was being checked in. I decided to go for a walk. The crowds had dwindled considerably to see a performance at the amphitheater. It was midday at the start of the season. I blended into the walkway at Bestor plaza. One could hear people wishing others a good year, phrases like: “We hoped he would make it, but Dad’s having back surgery, so we’ll play it by ear.” The performers, children, and guests were sensing the clock ticking. The summer start of this place was magically orchestrated. One would have thought the spirit would change more markedly after all these years, but the solid spirit was there- if ever so slightly modernized.
The rhythm of the season, like some grand polished railway clock was intact. Having been fully tested by the new America, Chautauqua continued its gaze back into time, remembering lessons the past had taught it, always self-conscious of its inner hypocrisies, but humble to change. I had to visit the fountain, purely for ritual sake. I saw some kids hanging there so I tried not to be too obvious. At first I heard: “Well, I liked her too.” Two teenage boys sat at the fountain wondering what to do with themselves. “I’m cool with that,” said the doe eyed blond putting his hand on his waist and standing up to the freckled face scrawny one. The latter sitting with his arms crossed trying to ignore the pretentious display of emotions of his older pal, took out a sketchbook from his saddle bag, and started drawing an old man on a bench at some distance. The sketch didn’t look half bad. The blonde kid took some pennies from his pocket and threw them into the fountain as he made a gigantic dancer’s leap into the air. “Those dancers are all over the place,” I said to the artist, who smiled knowingly at me. I opened the note that had been attached to my suitcase. It was handwritten from Fran: “Let this be an adventure for your soul, to be open to love and art. Your old friend Francis.” It is noted that I was being observed- the kid with the sketch pad sensed I was an artist, but we remained stealth.
The artist friend went back to drawing, as his friend repeated his dance moves, and the former caught my expression again, smiled silently and rolled his eyes in further embarrassment at his dancer friend’s show of skill, as he continued drawing. It was clear neither of us were that fond of dancing boys. At once so blessed, the long shadows of four o’clock July sun drenched the Chautauqua scene. I moved on and walked down past the amphitheater to the lake to get an initial look at the changes that might have taken place over the years. For one thing, many of the houses had a less cottage like feel to them, seemed more modern than I had always imagined. Andrea’s house, the Acadia on Simpson Street was almost the same. Though her mother thought it was a big white elephant, for its size it had a stately charm to it. I would catch up with her soon enough, it was time for a swim in the lake.
I went back to my room at the Carey, changed into a suit, and tromped down to the lake again, past the Acadia, immediately diving into the cold water and starting swimming from the beach towards the clock tower. The memory of being a swimmer in college stayed with me, but the cold was cramping me a bit at first. I spied three kids playing with a radio controlled boat on the dock, then looked out to aim for the tower. I could see the tip of the Acadia from the water, but it disappeared once I got even with the tower. Then I submerged myself and swam under water until I could see the dock, crouched down and pushed off from the lake bottom to pull myself onto the dock.
When I got onto the dock a little girl with curly hair was sitting with her mother on a bench and she said: “Oh my goodness Mommy, where did that man come from, he jumped like a big fish right out of the water!” Her mother, a red haired woman with a stern countenance clutching a small bible said, “Oh Ashley, don’t talk about people you don’t know. When you go to the boys and girls club this year, you’ll learn how to swim too- and you won’t want anyone calling you a fish! You look like you might need a towel. I’m Betsy and this is my daughter Ashley.” said the women, as she handed me a towel she took from the basket beside her. ” I am in your debt madam, I just got here after a long drive from the city, and rushed right to the lake,” I replied as I took the towel and started to dry off. “Where’s the boys and girls club?” asked Ashley tentatively. I pointed over to the other side of the beach and said: “It’s that green and white house way over there, and your mother’s right, once you go there you’ll learn how to swim!” A look of fear crossed her face and she put her head down. The women stood up to leave, waiting for her daughter to follow suit. Ashely just stared at Joel, no doubt thinking about the perils of swimming. “We are staying at the Athenaeum, so you can leave the towel there when you are done with it. “That’s mighty kind of you Ma’am. Oh, excuse my manners, Joel Parker I’m teaching art here this summer.” She extended her hand. “Delighted to meet you. We are here mostly for bible study.” As she headed up the hill, Joel walked around the tower and looked at the two of them, and looked upon the model of Palestine facing the lake.
Joel had made himself at home in the art studio where he was to teach the drawing from life workshop. His goal was to use a model first, and then take the class to the beach and do life sketching, and then finally to do some sketches of the dancers as they rehearsed in the morning. This would put the pressure on the students to work fast, he thought, and present real challenges to their abilities. Originally he had no idea that Andrea was the choreographer coach for the Don Quixote, but didn’t shrink from the opportunity. When they were kids at their respective institution schools, he had drawn her many times, but he has still learning at the time, and even the one sketch book from that time was long gone somewhere, probably had no dancer pictures.
He set the students up with easels and large pads of paper and allow them to stand or sit as desired, while he would roam around the class. A model had been arranged in advance, by the school. Apparently he was a French horn player in the Chautauqua Symphony, which seemed odd to Joel at the time it was mentioned to him. But once the guy sitting so comfortably and coached him on the four positions he wanted him to take, he understood the reason why Stefano Baratti was chosen for the job. With portions so very near Michelangelo’s David, this tall Italian man struck an impressive pose without trying. That he was not actually a dancer may have been an advantage- sometimes classical bodies that are not too muscular are easier to comprehend.
This class had a nice mix of older painters, friends of Mrs. Baker, and young students who were on break from art school. There was Joe Pulaski, a tall retiring man who had come to Chautauqua with his grand daughter Elizabeth who was studying ballet and in the corps; Florence Barnes, an elderly woman with a face like prune but lively eyes, from Jamestown- both were friends of Ms. Baker. Erika James, a rebellious, wise cracking African American girl who came to the art school through one of the teachers from SUNY Purchase, and was just getting used to the idea of her own beauty, and its effect on boys. She dressed provocatively in clothing that was a clever arrangement of colorful leotards and short jean jackets. Woody Carpenter, a white haired wiry Korean War veteran who took the class to learn how to illustrate a book he was writing on his experience in the war- usually sat quietly all the time, internalizing every instruction with such stoic composure that the class was intimidated by his presence. Woody felt he had a special connection with Joel because of the war experience, but Joel down played it, not wanting to bring that subject into the studio. The gatekeeper, August Thompson sat next to Woody, and they seemed to be at about the same level of drawing. Then there was Patricia Grey who was from RISD, and so proto-typically Alice in Wonderland you began to suspect that she had inherited some gene that predestined her to play that role eternally. In her mid-twenties with long blonde hair, very pale white skin, her fragile fingers moved across the drawing space with a lightness and precision that made her work the most finished in the class.
The boy that Joel had seen at the fountain: Jody Gordon was a slender brown haired, freckled high school student with a grudge against dancers. He was defensively quiet about his work that revealed his inexperience, and too young and fragile to have a crush on Patricia who dismissed him. He carried a small book on the notebooks of Da Vinci everywhere he went, and always said that Da Vinci had bodies right but that Michelangelo was a tart. Though to an older adult his work might have appeared more mature in some respects compared to Patricia, as it had a grit that she did not possess that one often wants to see in young artists, her work was more effortless in her illustrations, and more profound for its deeper emotional appeal. She had “broken through” as Mrs. Baker was known to have said.
Jose Fuentes, a graduate of the streets of New York who was striving not to ghost Picasso, but was inordinately gifted in similar ways, had dark curly brown hair that hid the fire of his green eyes, clouded by cigarette smoke, who talked with a thick Spanish accent, and was almost always covered in paint. Fuentes was hungry in a way that must have devastated many a woman. He and Erika had hit it off, but he was sharply critical of her work; criticisms that she deflected in a funny way accusing him of being a chauvinist, or old school. He drew with a kind of violence that was appealing to Jody Gordon, who looked up to him, though Jose was not that kind to him. He seemed more interested in Erika- but in truth most of the male class shared that same interest. She and Jose hit it off in a kind of comical, sarcastic way that made the studio lively. There really is nothing worse than a dead studio.
But for their banter, the classes would be kind of quiet, so Joel early on brought a boom box and let people bring CD’s to play. Needless to say, he had secured permission to bring the group to the dress rehearsal to draw, but was a little concerned about their ability to get quickly up to speed. The older group was more technically prepared, but had too many bad habits of conventional poses- the younger group was genuinely inspired but lacked the discipline to complete drawings, but were improving. Though Joel came primarily to give a talk, he had agreed to teach and was, quite frankly, a little rusty at motivating people. The drawings initially varied from crudely abstract to childish, but in the fourth session things started to improve. He was starting to get them motivated once they obtained some models.
“I want you to understand that both our models this week are very athletic, but only one is a dancer. Those who so kindly offered to model for us and are treating the session as an exercise on stillness and mime, so you will have an opportunity to really draw the human form in stillness- in full form before we go to draw the Chautauqua dancers in rehearsal this next week.” Today we are focused on the male form, Wednesday we’ll be focused on the female form. I know that people in the class are at varying stages of drawing anatomy from life, and if I stress things that you already know, realize that I may be saying something for the benefit of others in your class. Stefano will take the first position sitting on the block facing three quarters to our artists. Can you take your shirt off Stefano?”
Stefano took off his gray t-shirt that said US NAVY on it, and now was wearing just a pair of cotton navy blue shorts. His torso was full and pectoral muscles well-toned, and his deep set eyes focused into the distance, ignoring the class. “Thank you. Now, I don’t want you people drawing corpses, as you have a fine human specimen in front of you, full of life.” Remember to draw your construction lines, pay close attention to the perspective and proportion. It was surprising given the first few classes of goofing off to see how serious the class took to having a real model. Stefano followed my instructions to be careful of his expression- his face was one of great power and sensitivity. He had such a classical sense of poise that I was tempted to draw him myself.
But then I briefly wondered if it was possible for a young French horn player anywhere in the world to look as intelligent and sophisticated as the model we had that day. I remembered that the female model, one Caroline Howard, was to show up at the end of this class, as I was to interview her for the job. According to Jessica, she was new to modeling, but was a little more mature. They found more mature women “less distracting” for the male students. Pretty typical Chautauqua move- don’t give them the sexy young girl for class, when the mature woman with fine features will do.
It was warm in the studio and as the session went on Stefano began to perspire a little on the forehead, at which point Patricia Grey crossed over to him, pulled out a tissue and wiped his forehead gazing into his eyes silently. Stefano did not break pose, but there was a legitimate fire between the two. Patricia moved her lips involuntarily when she sat down and went back to drawing. She looked furtively over his body, not excluding any space- her eyes dodging back to his, he to hers. There was a reflective nature to the two of them that was about intent- they took everything seriously, but also had a careful aloofness. I began to cover for the uncomfortable silence, explaining something about the weight of the shoulders, and I think everyone knew what I was doing. There is a cinematic quality to a good studio, and part of that is not to let people get stuck- to keep the visual movement going, forcing the artists to stretch, to learn, and to tackle things without worrying about looking bad.
Once again, Patricia’s work was better developed and more graceful than anyone in the room. There is usually one standout in every class. It was her. When everyone had reached a point where they had created all four dance poses, I announced the end of the session; that we would take a break and everyone was to move themselves into a circle for critiques. Erika and Jody decided to go warm up Chinese food they had brought for the class and invited Patricia who didn’t hear them, but was still staring into Stefano’s eyes and adjusting some lines of her sketch around his forehead. It is hard to describe the delicacy of her lines. Stefano was now in a relaxed pose I had taken from the ballet Don Quixote, and suddenly looked more like a dancer than a French horn player. This time stood still, and quickly I started banter with Woody to cover. Nothing kills love like a little talk of strategic killing.
As Andrea looked through her Outlook calendar she mused: “No time for all that”, as she Joel’s name on the calendar kept coming up on the screen, ignoring the heart to focus on the next task at hand, she cancelled out all her reminders, and quickly exited to the porch to ride her bike to the studio. She could hear the orchestra playing the suite from Don Quixote in the amphitheater, ever more motivation to get over to her dancers quickly. It was true that she had something to prove with this production, but it was deeper than that. This marked a rite of passage that somehow she’d been working towards since leaving New York City Ballet for medical school. She had succeeded as a physician; but she most wanted ballet to be back at the center as it had been in her youth. For many people this seemed like something natural- an outgrowth of her involvement with the ballet, but for the professionals, they knew how hard it was for her to jump into such position, and truly instruct young dancers.
The dancers were warming up for rehearsal, Stephanie Alden was carefully stretching her beautifully long legs at the bar and David Batz sat on the floor doing hurdler stretches talking with her. They were in a pretty contemplative mood, preparing inside, which is always a determined and beautiful thing non-dancers are rarely privy to. The sun was lower in the sky, but the studio was a little warm. Today is their final individual rehearsal of the pas de deux before this evening dress, and the tech that will take place at the amphitheater in the morning tomorrow. She read her own rehearsal instructions: “Iron out little imperfections!” was written large in her date book. There were some other notes, but she ignored them as she shoved the book into the canvas shoulder-bag that had Charlie Chaplin silk screened on the side of it. She wanted a closed rehearsal for this last chance to focus them and shake out the jitters- so there were no other dancers allowed in studio for this session.
Andrea said to herself: “Even after all these years I love when they immediately snap to attention as I come into the room.” as she took out the CD from the Chautauqua orchestra made of the piece and put it into the sound system. “Good afternoon, my charms!” she said without a hint of irony thinking. “The two of them know I consider them the cream of the coffee. Even though I’ve been especially hard on them, and the transition to me from Ana Maria was a little difficult because of my stronger Balanchine background; they’ve come around quite nicely.” “I was a little sore this morning, but I’ve been working it out in rehearsal all day” said Stephanie, “I’m ready to run with it.” Stephanie had an infectious voice and crystalline eyes that darted back and forth in conversation. There was esprit about her that said “challenge me I’m better than your think.” But at the same time, she was quick to bruise and took somethings personally-at times turning off the floor with a rage- that when she checked this temper to cry, made her all the more wonderful. No one cycled through emotions like her on the spot, and it made her the most fluid actor-dancer of the company.
At this point David impromptu stands up and pulls her hand into the floor making a gesture meaning: let’s begin the dance, while putting his arm around both of us, saying: “Hush my little bird. My energy is yours, and we will fly today.” Stephanie, easy to blush, let out a little giggle, and gave David a look of “respect me”, still placing her arms on her hips authoritatively. David was so lovingly embracing her that his plea could not be taken by Stephanie the wrong way. I noticed that his upper body strength had grown considerably this season, and the boyishness was leaving him. Stephanie put her head on this shoulder quietly and murmured something. I pat them both on the back and say: “Well said, young man. FYI: the buzz among the company is so positive for the both of you. I don’t remember a company that was so behind their principals. Oh, and there are a few important people from the city, so yes, make the absolute most of it this time?” “Who are they?” Queried David right away. “Some people from New York City Ballet who are coming with Patrice, and they have equal interest in both of you. So you’ll meet them after the show-that’s all I can say.” You could hear the fan whirling above us in complete silence as their eyes opened simultaneously, and they turned white. “Let’s get it together now- no time for idle chat.”
I clapped my hands together and backed away from the friend position to take on my coaching role, straightening up into the starting position of the pas de deux. “Take it from the top… and please, give your focus to expression as well as technique, it’s a big stage at the amphitheater, so I need you to pretend that we are on it right now, and I’m the audience- all four thousand! Project, project, project… and maintain poise while we stick our marks, maintain positions, and please, let the love between you be known to the audience.”
I back away further while the two are getting settled into the wings, and start the music, and let them perform, making mental notes as they go. Clapping and cheering when things are well done, being restrained on the very few errors I can see. There are a few small problems in the beginning, and both dancers know it, but they quickly honor the performance. I clap for them and give a praise-full bow at the end. I am in tears looking at them, how quickly they’ve grown. I go to hide this wiping my eyes: “Costumes are ready with Jane, take a break, shower and suit up… full cast dress rehearsal at six. Beautiful work, it’s all yours now.”
The two dancers hug in a way that I hadn’t seen, as both were real competitors, and have very different personalities. I check time and consider the scheduled overview meeting with the youth ballet class leaders on any injuries. These have thankfully been minimal, a strained muscle here, a few girls with diet problems and patching up two boys that got into a fight over who was the better dancer. As a pediatrician I found children to be fascinating psychologically, always full of un-childlike insights and wisdom. “Out of the mouth of babes”, my father would say. Pops was right about a lot of things.
When the food came back, Joel had Patricia start the drawing critiques. The nice thing was that she was concentrating so hard that she hadn’t noticed anyone else’s work, so when it came time for critiques, she was coming to the works without seeing what the other artist’s had done. She was generous to others, and embarrassed by the praise later heaped upon her. Being an artist was about having humility to her, and being so totally honest. Not surprisingly the whole classes work rose to a new level in this session- and I became transparent to people who wanted their own work to be like hers.
As the class cleared out I began to work on my own sketch- using red conte crayon- with just Stefano, Patricia and myself working away. Woody was watching me carefully and said something like: “That’s magical…” I retorted, “No, I’ve been doing just this for twenty years. He laughed, and said: “I should just hire you and get it over with.” “By the end of the class, you’ll be surprised how far your drawing will have come.” I said moving away from the easel. “If those are your first figure drawings they are far better than mine were.” I said. It was really the first time I’d seen Woody smile- such a somber soul. “Stefano can you stay just to humor me- I don’t like leaving things unfinished.” I felt, for once, like a true mentor. It was radically liberating, not like I was an expert or something, but like I was on an empowered elevator with my student.
At this point I drew details into my quick motion sketches as I coached Stefano to move. The three images showed the dancer in one pose after another. It revealed an ability acquired over years to see on the spot. As I took my hand off the paper and fiddled with the crayon, I felt someone standing watching me, and I turned to the door of the studio to see Andrea Martin, arms crossed smiling with a knowing look. “I’m here to interview for the model position for the master art class.” I had to look once more, as seeing her face melted away time so fast that it took me quite unaware. There was a something caught in my throat, and a veil of tears welled up as my I could feel my whole face flushed, as I stood up and automatically put my hands behind my back in anticipation. “It could not be her, I thought, after all these years… and it was that simply. Andrea Martin now ever so casually had arranged to see me, though I’d been ducking the concept for weeks.
I stood still silently in my tracks, as she was as radiant as any imagining I’d ever had in my futile dreams. Her countenance was one of finding an old friend, and we looked at each other for an extended moment. She crossed the room to me and gave me a complimentary hug. I embarrassed myself in a way by saying: “Andrea, you are every bit as beautiful as the first day we met.” Here she smiled, appraising my body and face momentarily, she laughed joyfully “And you sir, haven’t lost your spirited gift of gab. Let’s catch up, no let’s do more than catch up. I have rehearsal tonight, can you come to the Acadia at nine? Remember the turtle!” “Definitely.” I said tearing the drawing off the easel, signing it, and handing it to her, still not removing my gaze from her eyes. “Oh, excuse me, this is Stefano Baratti principal French horn in the symphony, meet Dr. Andrea Martin, who is also the director of Don Quixote this summer.” Stefano came over from his place and shook Andrea’s hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said politely. “And you as well, Stefano. I’ll no doubt see you around rehearsal tonight. Speaking of which, I’d better run.” And as quickly as she arrived she vanished from the studio. I turned to Stefano, and said: “Fine work Stefano, I hope we can do it again sometime.” It was more than amazing for Andrea to appear and disappear in that moment. I was transported in time, that time before war, as I thought she might be in some way as well, when she made the joke about my pet turtle back in the day. It wasn’t exactly like I thought, I mean I had the compulsion to grab her and hug her so hard, or thought I would. She was as mysterious and opaque simultaneously as ever, but the music was more like humming a familiar song that made friends laugh. Our hearts were talking sans eroticism, just finding each other again. There was nothing to be said as I sat in the studio silently drawing her from memory. Very little had changed, sans a slight aging. There was someone playing piano down the hall- it was a Scott Joplin ragtime piece, and the pianist had that light touch required for Ragtime. I was beside myself drawing her picture again and again as the studio light faded, I drew a picture of Frances from memory.
Erika and Jose were chatting at the plaza café early morning sharing the Sunday New York Times. He was desiring to smoke but knew that even outside it was frowned upon, as he played with his cigarette package on the table. “Go ahead, there’s no one here yet,” she said as she noticed his anxiety. “I will, if you do,” he replied. “No problem” she said as she took a cigarette for herself and let him light it. “You know these things will kill you,” as he laughed through smoke she blew in his direction. “So, why Chautauqua of all places for a big city guy like you?” “I need to get back to fundamentals- all this post-modern dialogue was getting in my head- I’m not an intellectual performer, I’m a painter, and here you don’t have to apologize for that.” She looked at him carefully and volunteered. “You know I really started school as an singer, as my roots were in the choir.” “But you left the holy rolling and went to art school,” he quipped. “Ha, ha. In a sense, I’m more like my dad than my mom- she’s the religious one- she was overjoyed to hear I came here. My dad, let’s just say, he made sin easy.”
The pony-tailed waiter showed up on cue, and glanced at them smoking: “I’ll have to tell you to stop if anyone else shows up, for now I didn’t notice anything. What it’ll be Jose?” he said as he took out his little pad. Jose looked back approvingly: “Erica meet Wick, Wick meet Erica. She’s in my art class and from the city- though we’re not calling it art yet.” Wick laughed and looked at Erica: “Nice to meet you. So?” Wick said looking at Jose. “Give us two cappuccinos- plenty of cinnamon on mine and extra natural sugar on the side. How’s the photography going?” “I got to say, not that special, though recently I started working with pinhole cameras and this Joel guy teaching the class has taken me out of my usual pedantic self.” “Well it is a small world, that’s who we have for our life drawing class.” As Jose noted, Erika responded: “I’m not that good at this stuff, but I love the class- it’s really easy to get into. Even though Mr. Picasso here finds it boring.” “I never said that, I find my own work boring, but the class is fine. What do you think of the guy?” Wick asked with a speculative look on his face. “He’s good-old school, a little distant, but I like his stuff- kind of a cross between Rodin and Matisse. It is refreshing to see someone actually draw something.” Wick fiddled with his pad for a second and then quipped: “I’ll be back with the coffee shortly sir- please don’t set anything on fire in the meantime.”
Some time passed as they read through the paper and Wick brought them coffee. Erica had opened the arts section for the Times: “Oh, not Meryl Streep again…” she said looking blankly at Jose. “You’re obviously jealous at her fame,” Jose said taking out another cigarette and lighting it while looking at her or just over her shoulder. “I can’t be jealous at her fame, though I may be tired of her because of her fame.” Here Erica arranged her costume self-consciously, pulling her jean jacket forward and adjusting her tights as Jose looked on treating her as the unsophisticated college kid she obviously was. He leaned back took a long drag on his cigarette and looked at her more intently. “You’re so pretentious,” why do you look at me like I’m some sort of child- you’re not that much older than I am.” “Goodness, I didn’t mean to spark you up. Hey, Wick has a boat, so you want to come with us for a ride out on the lake tonight?” “Sounds a little iffy- two white guys and a black girl on a sunset cruise…” “Grow up princess,” he replied as he took a generous sip from his cup. “I’m game. Only if you turn into a toad and jump into the lake,” as she flashed a big smile and looked through him, and then back at the paper. “I like that you are so funny- you should be in the theater- you’re really cut out for it.” “Thanks for the compliment. First. No can do. I look too funny.” He smiled: “That’s why you’ll do well, everyone will know you didn’t make it on your looks.” “Never mind your insult, I’ll remember that.” “What will you remember?” He said looking crossly. Singing to herself: “I’m not Ra, Ra, Ra, and he isn’t Ta, Ta, Ta, because he’s too old to have the La, La, La,” as she giggled and the foam in her cup created a moustache that added to the effect. “I’m sorry, I think I love you,” he said looking directly into her eyes with his piercing green orbs settling on her and melting the distance between them like a soft focus lens. For the first time in their brief non-relationship, she blushed and got serious: “Hold on tiger, the dumb black chic has to process your craziness.”
Joe Pulaski was praying in the Hall of Philosophy- out of sight of the morning prayers at the amphitheater but decidedly in allegiance with them. He believed strongly in God, but as a Methodist there had to be certain limits- and he really detested the crunchy granola spin that his local church had put on things. He had prayed a great deal for forgiveness and had moved beyond the usual to an enlightened view of the war that consumed his youth. Now he was praying for his granddaughter Elizabeth who was recently diagnosed with childhood leukemia and was living it up at the dance school this one last summer before going into chemo therapy, and a likely downward spiral. It was particularly galling that she so young was being exposed to the disease that he felt should be reserved for old farts like himself. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when seeing she was enjoying herself so much at Chautauqua. It was wonderful and crushing simultaneously.
By all accounts the prognosis was better for her than many other young patients, as the determination was made early, but he knew it would be a hard journey for her. Nevertheless, he deeply resented not having answers for her, as her mother died of breast cancer a few years earlier, and her father- a bitter alcoholic whom he never could tolerate, had not been on speaking terms for years- Joe Pulaski and his wife Jane were the only parents she had. Elizabeth was a good kid, earnest and careful in her treatment of others, but they were currently a little at odds with each other. She was surprised that he felt it necessary to come “baby sit” her at Chautauqua, and even more surprised that he had taken an art class. He admitted it was odd, but he had company. He saw a bit of himself in Woody, who was perhaps the closest thing to a fellow veteran approaching eighty that he could find at Chautauqua.
Elizabeth didn’t know it but she was doing him a big favor, giving him some purpose and activity for the summer, as the clubs had grown stale, and Jane was tired of him milling about the house fixing things that didn’t need to be fixed. He really thought that he had little other choice as something could happen to change the situation rather quickly, he turned back to his belief that things happened for a reason, and that people were rewarded in the end for their perseverance. Elizabeth knew that she could get anything she wanted out of Pops, as he was called, with just a smile, but she, growing older having taken advice of her grandmother not to try Joe too much with gift requests, had simmered down. Ironically this was just at the time when he most wanted to give her things that would bring her “a little happiness.” Jane kept telling him not to indulge her because it made it obvious that she didn’t need to learn discipline, as after all then she’s just going to die. He thought the idea was stupid.
The trip to Chautauqua was more than enough, and he had to pull some strings to get her into the dance school as her ballet skills were not quite at the level of students her age, the “illness” was taken into consideration. Still that morning he had noticed how tired she looked when heading off to class, and it struck him for the first time really deeply that their granddaughter was the center of their lives. Elizabeth didn’t know enough to really understand death, and he was thankful for that part, and feared that would change. He prayed again for her repeating the Hail Mary and asking directly to her to intercede on behalf of his beloved Elizabeth. He kind of felt that praying wasn’t enough, but he thought it couldn’t hurt. His prayers were sort of mumbles, like he was almost ashamed to hear his voice. He sat in the hall of philosophy praying on the bench, and then fell asleep and woke up again.
He was staring off into space when the young Methodist Minister Andy Buck stepped into the hall perimeter, waving his hand gently at Joe, and Joe waved him over to his seat. “Far from the maddening crowd, I see,” said Andy, slipping his book into a saddle bag that was around his shoulder, as he scooted into the bench. Joe retorted: “And you sir, are onto a sermon?” “Not my turn, and the guy talking, well let’s just say he’s talking alright.” Joe laughed at the innocent expression of Andy- they had only known each other briefly as Woody and Elizabeth were staying at the Methodist house. Andy volunteered, if the need should arise, to give Elizabeth some coaching- what he and his brethren called Christ catching up, but she seemed rather joyous and in no need of special attention. Joe was pretty darn low key for an old style Methodist, and he wanted to be younger again with Andy-to see the world more clearly or something. Andy had that effect on everyone- they just wanted to know what was on his mind.
Joe appreciated that Andy never let on that they had such a conversation, and well he acted oblivious enough to Elizabeth so she wouldn’t think he was weird. She told her grandfather in the mall once after meeting an over-zealous drama teacher who mentioned he had just seen a boy from her class: “In case you didn’t realize, it’s really weird for older guys to talk to us girls about personal things- especially when they’ve already been through everything, and think they know what we’re thinking- which, of course they don’t.” He told her it was best to hang out with kids your own age and left it at that- though he laughed to himself about it for quite a while. His granddaughter giving him the lecture. Joe was thinking all of this at the moment. He didn’t talk much, and he didn’t like people who did. Andy was willing to let him muse. Therefore Andy passed the test.
Andy adjusted his wire frame glasses, and waited quietly for Joe to speak, as he didn’t want to interrupt whatever thoughts were running through his head. Finally the silence was a little too obvious. “What’s up?” Andy asked quietly after a longish pause. Joe looked sternly and said with a glint in his eye. “Remember I took on the boat races for you guys… well someone dropped out- three weeks, Andy our house is going to need to find us an extra crewman.” “Who else we have?” asked Andy looking kind of bewildered because the Methodist residence was indeed rather small.” “There’s me, Rev. Kaufman, Rev Dempsey’s son, and the crazy kid…” “Rich? Oh, goodness, you’ll have to leave him on shore…” Joe replied: “I heard you coached the team a while back, must still remember some of it? I was hoping I could get you to pitch in and help the kid out- I’m too old to do that kind of thing. Andy looked blank: “Well I suppose he’s strong enough. Sure, no problem, sir, just like the old days, but hopefully not so stoned.” Joe laughed: “I appreciate that, when you get him into form, let me know and we’ll take him out. We are getting cool new t-shirts and shorts by the way with a big blue cross- should be kind of spiffy. Hop on it sir… or he’ll be up there smoking pot again.” Andy whispered:”Mr. Pulaski, we don’t allow such goings on in the Methodist House, do you understand?” They laughed and he gave Joe a cool stare as he patted him on the back and headed off the porch. “People mistake my kindness for gullibility all the time,” thought Andy to himself. Pulaski spoke after him: “Two weeks Andy, I’m counting on you.” Andy just turned and waved.
Joel stepped up to the porch of the Acadia with the background sounds of the Amp being taken down from rehearsal and looked into the screen door. “Come on in silly,” said Andrea from the kitchen down the hallway. He stepped into the old house and memories flooded back to him. She appeared with a bottle of white wine and two glasses. “I thought we’d sit out on the porch and just hang for a bit.” Now she gave him a hug. “You’re like a rock, you know that…” Joel grinned slyly humming: “I am a rock, I’m an island…” “You are dating yourself Mr. Parker.” They sat on the comfy wicker furniture down towards the end of the porch, and Andrea lit a candle. ” Here, you pour us a few glasses. Just like the old days… I guess you know both my parents are gone as well.” Joel looked on a little reminded of his dreams earlier. “So sorry, I expected both of them to last longer… particularly your dad.” She returned:”That was a tragic accident, you know the road we used to ride the old Englishes on?” Joel’s face dropped and he exclaimed: “No, don’t tell me a truck hit him?” She looked equally surprised: “How’d you know that?” Joel was still getting over the fact that his dream had anything to do with reality. “Came to me in a dream, well kind of. You know, I was heartened to hear you hung onto the house.” “Couldn’t give it up, too many memories.” She said as she crossed herself. “So you live in Manhattan, that must be great.” “It is in so many ways, but I’m thinking of teaching in the SUNY system somewhere, instead of NYU- I actually want to get out of the city.” Andrea looked at him less than casually. “Really nice idea, settle down, think about things, maybe have a family… I read both your books- “Road From War” was the shocker. The art book was more like the Joel I know.” “I’m glad you know him, he’s still a little on the edge gathering things.” “Well, I have a special surprise for you, but you can only see it in the daytime.” “Hint?” he said raising an eyebrow. “That was the hint,” she said looking over the railing of the porch as she put her legs up. “Still love the dancing, don’t you?” “Yep, my solace after looking at people broken bones all the time.” “The performance should be great, huh. I had my students draw some of the dancers the other day- a little crude on the anatomy, but they’re doing quite well.” “Isn’t it funny, after all these years…being all grown up and everything,” Andrea said smiling at him. “I loved being on this porch with you= it’s like someone gave me my heart back.” “Me too…” Joel looked over and kissed her on the cheek and lightly touched her shoulder.
The next morning Andrea invited Joel for breakfast at the Acadia, in order to show him her surprise. On the porch was a table already set with delicate plates, juice and coffee, strawberries, cream, and a waffle maker steaming away. Andrea was buried in her paper, the preview of the dance performance in the Chautauqua Daily. Joel brought some sunflowers and put them behind his back as he came up the stairs. “My things are looking up! This beats my instant coffee at the Methodist House.” Andrea put her paper down, got up and gave him a hug. “I don’t do this very often, so you’ll owe me- I’m not usually a leisure lover- took time off from work for the production.” Joel removed his flowers from behind her back and gave them to her. “Those are gorgeous,” she said as she grabbed a pot from the floor at the end of the porch. “Here, put them in this one…” They were eating rather voraciously sort of talking, but eating like it was their last meal, as they sat sipping coffee, she looked over the preview. “The strawberries, super nice touch Ms. Martin.”
She looked over her paper and then said. “Oh, time for the surprise. Come on, follow me,” she called out as she got up and ran into the house and straight up the stairs. Joel was catching up as she yelled out: “All the way up to the bird’s nest!” They were breathing hard when they hit the top of the stairs, and Andrea took a piece of cloth off the banister and wrestled with some keys and stuck them into the door at the end of the hall.Then she stopped. “Now I have to blind fold you for the effect.” Joel laughed, he was out of breath, and she kissed him after she put the blind fold on, and then took his hand, opened the door and led him into the room. It was fairly dark in the room, he could tell, then she pulled the blind fold off. The windows were covered with brown paper, blocking the sun out of the room except the one window that was facing the lake. It had an aperture in the center of it, that cast the light from the lake in an upside down image on the wall. The camera-obscura created a beautiful image on the densely patterned wallpaper. The trees going down to the lake and Simpson Rd, the green grass before the blue water and the sky with cumulus clouds forming a puffy border up the to ceiling molding. She brought him over to the wall, and he kissed her right away on her lips, and then they kissed again, and he brushed her hair aside. Andrea said: “Tastes like strawberries.” “That, my dear, is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done for me.” The two of them sat on the floor and gazed up at the wall. There was a book of poems of Emily Dickinson on the floor. Andrea read some quirky lines to him, modulating her voice, sometimes teasing him, sometimes playfully in love. “I am glad you weren’t too old for this…”she said with a wink. He: “Never in a million years.”
Jessica Sullivan had asked Joel if he wanted to attend Don Quixote with her and a few of the Chautauqua administration, reserving seats down front for the opening performance. He agreed and mentioned to her the figure drawing project he had created hinged on the rehearsals. When they arrived, the amphitheater was packed as the orchestra was warming up, and he searched for and saw Stefano in the horn section. Jessica was wearing a blue and white cotton summer dress and sandals- she had acquired a bit of sun burn, but was greeting people left and right as they entered the amphitheater. He was glad he decided to dress in a seersucker suit, with the appropriate bow tie. This was a set of clothes that really felt odd to him, being accustomed to uniforms. “You’re looking sporty.” She said as she took his hand and led him through the crowds. She was obviously good at this sort of thing, seeming to extend courtesy to everyone she met eyes with, and conveying the excitement and importance of the production at hand. She was an ambassador to the arts-as Fran would say.
I thought of Andrea, who was obviously back stage keeping things running smoothly, and thought about my last meeting with her, sitting on the porch of the Acadia sipping lemonade and listening to music from the amphitheater. When Jessica’s words interrupted my introspection, I made an abrupt start. “I’m so glad you could come to this production,” said Jessica. “One of the last things Fran said to me was how important it was for you to attend this event.” “Really,” I said, not fully absorbing the implications of this comment. Miss Sullivan smiled widely as she placed a program in my hand. “You do know that the Martins, Bakers and my family had been Chautauqua friends for years… Oh, and Andrea asked me to extend an invitation to the cast party tonight being held at the Athenaeum.”
By the time we were seated the lights had gone down and a respectful hush fell over the audience. Summer seemed at these moments to be eternal, and simultaneously fleeting. There is a scent of anticipation before every performance at Chautauqua that signals years of preparation. When the entre act started, blood had quickened in my veins, and one could feel energy rise- in a collective positive energy. This was a second life, sanctified in gratitude, compelling for its lost- and found-ness, moving into the hearts of all the audience, simultaneous, complete- melting into one spirit. In my mind’s eye, I saw Andrea and myself, standing on the perimeter of the amphitheater as we had done twenty years ago. Right before the dancers appeared on stage, Jessica gave me soft look. “You see… some things really don’t change that much.”
Even from a distance the cast party was one of joyous feeling as the air had cooled and people lined the porch of the Athenaeum, as we approached to see the windows were brightly lit, and jazz music playing beneath the hub bub of voices. The musicians appeared still dressed in their white dinner jackets and black dresses, and many of the dancers sported Quixote t-shirts over black tights. On the porch we saw the two principals were gate keeping. “Congratulations, a marvelous performance from the two of you,” said Jessica, handing the tickets to Andrea, who said jokingly: “And the passwords are?” Jessica laughed and gave her a hug and whispered loudly: “Open Quixote!” Here, David stamped both of their hands with a rubber stamp with an ink image of a windmill.
The hotel, though kind of antiquated, has always been the grandest on the grounds, but recent renovations made it seem a little more… well sophisticated. Inside the Heirloom dining room the entrance was decorated with two lemon trees, bowls of oranges and lemons on the tables and a large central ice sculpture of a ballet dancer in an arabesque, illuminated in orange and yellow light. The buffet tables lined the room with tapas and various Spanish dishes, and waiters were busy carrying trays of mimosas, with bottles of Clicquot at their centers, as a full jazz band was playing sets of classics from Ellington. “This is swankier than I remember Chautauqua,” I said as we made our way through the room to see Andrea who was holding court with some of the dancers and musicians. Now I could feel all of the times we had rushing back to me, and I walked forward to her. She hesitated at first, and then she excused herself from adoring fans, and said “I’ve promised to give this man a tour of the hotel, and if I don’t he won’t be making out that fat check for the company! Mr. Parker, take me to the veranda and show me why you paint so well.” Her white dress was stunning lace that showed off her tan and golden hair. It was a rebuke of the girl on the bicycle her in the flesh, not some minute mind film.
A light summer rain started as they hit the veranda. The smell of flowers, soil, distant perfumes of the guests mingled together with a freshness. I looked at the flower perched cleverly on the bun at the back of her hair, it rose up like an impressionist painting from her elegant long neck. She turned and flashed her eyes at me, as if questioning whether I was indeed whom I said I was, or was she found the moment as surreal and unimaginable as any after all these years of ordinary Chautauqua summers. She handed me a glass of champagne that appeared magically off a small table on the porch. “I feel terrible that I didn’t bring you flowers now.” I said, looking at her blue ocean eyes. “Your gift is being here, just at the right moment. I heard about Francis, and know what she meant to you.” She whispered as she took my hand: “So sorry my old friend. So very sorry.” we clinked glasses and just looked into each others eyes. The world was moving around us like a slow minuet. The young dancers kept coming up to Andrea and hugging her, leaping in her arms and crying for joy. The scent of honeysuckle flowers pervaded a slight mist, as feet pattered on the porch and voices bubbled beyond us.
There is a grave impasse between how life should be lived and how it is actually lived among humans. I began thinking… “For all their imperfection on individual levels it is hard to comprehend how that is channeled into mass violence and torture that “civilization” tolerates in war. For everyone it seems is no longer separated into two categories: those who know the value of life based upon a brush with death, and those who only presume. Former soldiers who become advocates for peace have a different perspective than the civilian populations. When they look out from a veranda onto a beautiful lake, with a beautiful woman, it is not quite the same anymore- they can forget the chasm between what they know, and whom they are. I was at that point when Andrea revealed a small tear in her eyes. “You know, my father would be very mad at this!” as she kissed me in the most gentle manner. I had not experienced that kind of movie in my head since the last time at Chautauqua.