Waking to an alarm on a rainy Saturday feels like a chore, and I'd rather not have to forgo my sleep or coffee and personal hygiene, but I have certain unspoken duties. My mother hasn't driven since I moved in with her last year, not—she insists—because she can no longer see, but because she prefers to be driven. When I stumble downstairs in my pajamas, she is sitting at our cluttered dining room table in the dark, dressed and ready, with her handbag on her lap. I'm already planning my morning after our return home, looking forward to taking a cup of coffee back up to bed and finishing the last chapters of the book I'm reading.
(Iris Murdock's strange and juicy novel, "A Severed Head," seems superficially to be about deception, self-deception, and sexual infidelity, but really probes the deeper problems inherent in living authentically and honestly. It seems authenticity bears no connection to happiness which, for Murdock, is an insipid concept that prefers to lurk among the dark charms of deception.)
The newspaper ad promises "Huge estate sale," but there are only a few other cars parked on the street in front of a rather prim brick house set far back on a smooth lawn. A sign on which the word Huge is written has an arrow pointing up a long gravel driveway that leads to a double garage. The open doors reveal tables laden with bric-à-brac. A few old ladies fondle an array of champagne flutes and stray kitchen utensils, Christmas ornaments, loose extension cords. The patter of rain is deafening and the damp garage is so dark that I doubt my mother can see much of what she is fingering. I'm ready to go home and make us coffee, but my mother is determined to go through the motions.
Maybe it's because I have a tendency to chafe against my guilt about being unemployed, but I'm suddenly furious about having set my alarm on the weekend for this—this false advertising, this ruse. Two middle-aged women in aprons hover around the open interior door that leads from the garage into the house itself—the usual hired tag-sale team, I suppose, defending the off-limits area. I'm so aggravated I taunt one of them by inquiring if there is anything more inside.
As if I'd uttered "Open sesame," the aproned women part and I am admitted inside.
At first I only notice that the house is full of light, as if the sun itself illuminates the immaculate white walls. Perhaps there are recessed lights, but the feeling is simply one of radiance and spaciousness. There is hardly any furniture in the house, just a few pieces for sale—a dark, polished table in the center of the empty dining room, entirely covered with beautiful lamps, whose cords are carefully wound around their necks; a few odds and ends pushed up against the walls; a kind of antique step stool that looks like a gleaming mahogany wedge of staircase, just two steps, labeled "Stairs to anywhere—$75"; a pair of delicate, exquisite black heels with pointed toes and a dainty white puff of feather boa in lieu of a bow. A fat string of pearls spills out of the well of one of the crossed shoes, behind which stands a small oil painting of the same scene, with the same pearls, but set against a lushly draped, scarlet background. There's something odd about the canvas, a still life of primly sexy, empty party shoes. Is it just me, or does it make everyone feel uncomfortable? It's like looking at a snapshot of something dead and gone that still manages to tantalize.
On a bare, white wall hangs a small painting in a wide, simple wood frame that appears to have been painted with gold leaf. A livid, orange-fleshed papaya, sliced in half is presented with its wet, black seeds oozing out like caviar. A heavy silver knife, almost out of frame, gleams suggestively. I feel exposed, like the fruit, but there's more to it.
It's not hyper-realism, but the visible texture of brush strokes and layers of built-up, saturated color provoke a kind of sharp, hypnotic lust that is hyper-real.
I wonder if the golden frame has something to do with its allure; you could be seduced by almost anything in a frame like that.
On another bright wall is a large painting of a teenage girl daydreaming. She's dressed in short-shorts and a cami, leaning back on a cushioned chair with her legs tucked up and spread carelessly; her fists rest between her open thighs. We hover together at the tender juncture between provocative and innocent, those curiously potent, awkward moments between girlhood and womanhood, which perfectly capture my daughter now at age 14. I'm almost ashamed of my fascination. I can't imagine putting it up on my wall, but neither can I stop looking.
I walk into the vast kitchen, beautifully remodeled, that spans the entire back of the house and opens fully onto a family room with a large bow window overlooking a well-tended garden. Yellow caution-tape prevents passage, stretching from one end of the kitchen to the other, and suggests at once a museum and a crime scene. On the wall beside the window that frames the park-like grounds is another large canvas.
But here, the dressed-up little girl leans to the left, instead gazing down into a pool where there is no reflection. She leans down so far that the ends of her neat ponytail skim the water's surface.
"Oh, actually, I'm more interested in looking at these paintings. They're fabulous, aren't they?"
The lady winces almost imperceptibly; it passes quickly, a slight tremor. "They're mine, I'm the artist." She sounds almost apologetic. I'm suddenly, miserably aware of my unwashed state, no make up, just sweats and a t-shirt.
My brain has trouble assimilating this new knowledge. I regard her differently now, but I can't manage to reconcile all her parts: the elegant Princeton Matron, well-bred, polite and prim, dangerously knowing, sensual, lady of arts and leisure, one who fastens price tags and invites strangers into her half-abandoned multi-million dollar home, the carnal female, the transgressive artist, direct, provocative, teasing, grief-stricken, the conventional, vulnerable, childish and middle aged parts. Nor can I readily place myself as an insider or an outsider here. I inhabit the soul of her paintings but not their outer world. I wonder if she ever feels the same disharmony within herself? It's just this brutal disharmony that Iris Murdock writes about.
She tells me that she just recently sold two large paintings at a local exhibition. "It's not the money, or the fact that someone's willing to pay for it. It's more the idea that someone really enjoys it and relates to it that means so much."
I tell her I understand.
It's deeply troubling to think that others won't have a chance to respond to her paintings and her vision, if, in fact, it is her vision I'm responding to. What if I just relentlessly project myself, my own hidden, yearning self, onto everything?
But that's okay, isn't it? We don't need to agree on an artist's vision, any of us. It's enough to be moved in our own, idiosyncratic, highly personal ways. We're still connected through the painting. That's a small source of comfort alongside the dismal, larger possibility that this artist's work won't ever be widely recognized. Her obscurity is cause for grief.
She tells me gently that the paintings are for sale, and explains that the prices are negotiable. I can't stop myself from confiding in her that I have my eye on one of the smaller paintings. Again, surrounded by the smooth gold leafed frame, is a simple painting of a fine, white porcelain tea cup on a saucer—the china bluish and translucent as skimmed milk. The empty cup sits on a chartreuse tablecloth against a deep fuchsia background. The dainty cup casts a deep and bulky shadow, somewhat misshapen as it bends up from the table along the wall. The soul rises up from that shadow. But there's more.
I feel an almost overwhelming, guilty satisfaction in the pleasure these colors afford, their luxury, the privilege of simply being able to view such gorgeousness. Colors whose beauty may be considered gaudy or frivolous, these are colors that please simply by existing and by their juxtaposition. It's a voyeuristic pleasure that shames me, and I cherish it fiercely.
She tells me a price, which is not at all unreasonable, but which I can't afford, and then says she'll give it to me for over a hundred dollars less that what she just asked. I don't have a job; whatever money I have quickly disappears in necessities, like food and clothing for my children. Not to mention my unspeakable unpaid debts. I only take books out of the library and experience a surge of self-loathing on occasions when, for no particular reason, I buy myself a cappuccino. There is no question that I can't have the painting.
She tells me there are a few more pieces upstairs, if I would care to look, but I don't dare.
Instead, I persuade my mother to buy a pair of architectural lamps—the artist has neatly inscribed "Pair of Candlestick Lamps—$40" on a manila tag fastened to the base. They are slender, mirrored columns topped with small, squarish shades made of brown or black fabric, my mother and I can't agree which. But what is most striking about them is that the insides of the shades are gold, like the paintings' frames.
The artist shyly points out their golden undersides, after I've already noticed. Her tentative smile might suggest a touch of pride or maybe just pleasure in uncovering beauty and sharing it. I want badly to put my hands over my ears and close my eyes.
My mother asks if she can do any better.
The artist says, "I'll do $35," and my mother pulls out her wallet.
"Charlotte," my mother says, "we have no place to put them except Kadir's room." My teenage son Kadir's bedroom is an explosion of soiled clothes, spilled soda, and chicken bones.
"It's okay," I say. "We'll make room somewhere."
At home the lamps stay in the place where I first set them down, in the dining room on a plain Shaker table beneath the window air-conditioner, which is held in place with duct tape. Flanked by the solemn beauty of the twin lamps, my daughter contemplates the little still life we've created. She calls it The Holy Air-Conditioner. When I look at it I see my painting.