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June 29— The New Moon 8 ñòðàíèöà
Angel hands her the flask of gin from his camera bag, and Misty gulps her bitter mouthful. Just for the record, she drank his booze. What you learn in art school is there’s an etiquette to drugs. You have to share.
Misty says, “Help yourself. Take one.”
And Angel pops the bottle open and shakes out two. He slips one in his pocket, saying, “For later.” He swallows the other with gin and makes a terrible gagging face, leaning forward with his red and white tongue stuck out. His eyes squeezed shut.
Immanuel Kant and his gout. Karen Blixen and her syphilis. Peter would tell Angel Delaporte that suffering is his key to inspiration.
Getting the sketches and watercolors spread out across the sofa, Misty says, “What do you think?”
Angel sets each picture down and lifts the next. Shaking his head no. Just a hair side to side, a kind of palsy. He says, “Simply unbelievable.” He lifts another picture and says, “What kind of software are you using?”
Her brush? “Sable,” Misty says. “Sometimes squirrel or oxtail.”
“No, silly,” he says, “on your computer, for the drafting. You can’t be doing this with hand tools.” He taps his finger on the castle in one painting, then taps on the cottage in another.
“You don’t use just a straightedge and a compass, do you?” Angel says. “And a protractor? Your angles are identical, perfect. You’re using a stencil or a template, right?”
Misty says, “What’s a compass?”
“You know, like in geometry, in high school,” Angel says, spreading his thumb and forefinger to demonstrate. “It has a point on one leg, and you put a pencil in the other leg and use it to draw perfect curves and circles.”
He holds up a picture of a house on a hillside above the beach, the ocean and trees just different shades of blue and green. The only warm color is a dot of yellow, a light in one window. “I could look at this one forever,” he says.
He says, “I’ll give you five hundred dollars for it.”
And Misty says, “I can’t.”
He takes another from the portfolio and says, “Then how about this one?”
She can’t sell any of them.
“How about a thousand?” he says. “I’ll give you a thousand just for this one.”
A thousand bucks. But still, Misty says, “No.”
Looking at her, Angel says, “Then I’ll give you ten thousand for the whole batch. Ten thousand dollars. Cash.”
Misty starts to say no, but—
Angel says, “Twenty thousand.”
Misty sighs, and—
Angel says, “Fifty thousand dollars.”
Misty looks at the floor.
“Why,” Angel says, “do I get the feeling that you’d say no to a million dollars?”
Because the pictures aren’t done. They’re not perfect. People can’t see them, not yet. There are more she hasn’t even started. Misty can’t sell them because she needs them as studies for something bigger. They’re all parts of something she can’t see yet. They’re clues.
Who knows why we do what we do.
Misty says, “Why are you offering me so much money? Is this some kind of test?”
And Angel zippers open his camera bag and says, “I want you to see something.” He takes out some shiny tools made of metal. One is two sharp rods that join at one end to make a V. The other is a half circle of metal, shaped like a D and marked with inches along the straight side.
Angel holds the metal D against a sketch of a farmhouse and says, “All your straight lines are absolutely straight.” He sets the D flat against a watercolor of a cottage, and her lines are all perfect. “This is a protractor,” he says. “You use it to measure angles.”
Angel sets the protractor against picture after picture and says, “Your angles are all perfect. Perfect ninty-degree angles. Perfect forty-five-degree angles.” He says, “I noticed this on the chair painting.”
He picks up the V-shaped tool and says, “This is a compass. You use it to draw perfect curves and circles.” He stabs one pointed leg of the compass in the center of a charcoal sketch. He spins the other leg around the first leg and says, “Every circle is perfect. Every sunflower and birdbath. Every curve, perfect.”
Angel points at her pictures spread across the green sofa, and he says, “You’re drafting perfect figures. It isn’t possible.”
Just for the record, the weather today is getting really, really pissy right about now.
The only person who doesn’t expect Misty to be a great painter, he’s telling her it’s impossible. When your only friend says no way can you be a great artist, a naturally talented, skilled artist, then take a pill.
Misty says, “Listen, my husband and I both went to art school.” She says, “We were trained to draw.”
And Angel asks, was she tracing a photograph? Was Misty using an opaque projector? A camera obscura?
The message from Constance Burton: “You can do this with your mind.”
And Angel takes a felt-tipped pen from his camera bag and gives it to her, saying, “Here.” He points at the wall and says, “Right there, draw me a circle with a four-inch diameter.”
With the pen, without even looking, Misty draws him a circle.
And Angel sets the straight edge of the protractor, the edge marked in inches, against the circle. And it’s four inches. He says, “Draw me a thirty-seven-degree angle.”
Slash, slash, and Misty marks two intersecting lines on the wall.
He sets on the protractor and it’s exactly thirty-seven degrees.
He asks for an eight-inch circle. A six-inch line. A seventy-degree angle. A perfect S curve. An equilateral triangle. A square. And Misty sketches them all in an instant.
According to the straightedge, the protractor, the compass, they’re all perfect.
“Do you see what I mean?” he says. He pokes the point of his compass in her face and says, “Something’s wrong. First it was wrong with Peter, and now it’s wrong with you.”
Just for the record, it seems Angel Delaporte liked her loads better when she was just the fat fucking slob. A maid at the Waytansea Hotel. A sidekick he could lecture about Stanislavski or graphology. First she’s Peter’s student. Then Angel’s.
Misty says, “The only thing I see is how you can’t deal with my maybe having this incredible natural gift.”
And Angel jumps, startled. He looks up, eyebrows arched with surprise.
As if some dead body just spoke.
He says, “Misty Wilmot, would you just listen to yourself?”
Angel shakes his compass point at her and says, “This isn’t just talent.” He points his finger at the perfect circles and angles doodled on the wall and says, “The police need to see this.”
Stuffing the paintings and sketches back in her portfolio, Misty says, “How come?” Zippering it shut, she says, “So they can arrest me for being too good an artist ?”
Angel takes his camera out and cranks to the next frame of film. He snaps a flash attachment to the top. Watching her through the viewfinder, he says, “We need more proof.” He says, “Draw me a hexagon. Draw me a pentagram. Draw me a perfect spiral.”
And with the felt-tipped pen, Misty does one, then the next. The only time her hands don’t shake is when she draws or paints.
On the wall in front of her, Peter’s scrawled: “... we will destroy you with your own neediness and greed ...”
The hexagon. The pentagram. The perfect spiral. Angel snaps a picture of each.
With the flash blinding them, they don’t see the homeowner stick her head through the hole. She looks at Angel standing there, snapping photos. Misty, drawing on the wall. And the homeowner clutches her own head in both hands and says, “What the hell are you doing? Stop!” She says, “Has this become an ongoing art project for you people?”
JUST SO YOU KNOW, Detective Stilton phoned Misty today. He wants to pay Peter a little visit.
He wants to pay you a little visit.
On the phone, he says, “When did your father-in-law die?”
The floor around Misty, the bed, her whole room, it’s cluttered with wet balls of watercolor paper. The crumpled wads of azure blue and Winsor green, they fill the brown shopping bag she brought her art supplies home in. Her graphite pencils, her colored pencils, her oils and acrylics and gouache watercolors, she’s wasted them all to make trash. Her greasy oil pastels and chalky soft pastels, they’re worn down to just nubs so small you can’t hold them anymore. Her paper’s almost gone.
What they don’t teach you in art school is how to hold a telephone conversation and still paint. Holding the phone in one hand and a brush in her other, Misty says, “Peter’s dad? Fourteen years ago, right?”
Smearing the paints with the side of her hand, blending with the pad of her thumb, Misty’s as bad as Goya, setting herself up for lead encephalopathy. Deafness. Depression. Topical poisoning.
Detective Stilton, he says, “There’s no record that Harrow Wilmot ever died.”
To give her brush a sharp point, Misty twists it in her mouth. Misty says, “We scattered his ashes.” She says, “It was a heart attack. Maybe a brain tumor.” Against her tongue, the paint tastes sour. The color feels gritty between her back teeth.
And Detective Stilton says, “There’s no death certificate.”
Misty says, “Maybe they faked his death.” She’s all out of guesses. Grace Wilmot and Dr. Touchet, this whole island is about image control.
And Stilton says, “Who do you mean, they ?”
The Nazis. The Klan.
With a number 12 camel-hair sky brush, she’s putting a perfect wash of blue above the trees on a perfect jagged horizon of perfect mountains. With a number 2 sable brush, she’s putting sunlight on the top of each perfect wave. Perfect curves and straight lines and exact angles, so fuck Angel Delaporte.
Just for the record, on paper, the weather is what Misty says it will be. Perfect.
Just for the record, Detective Stilton says, “Why do you think your father-in-law would fake his death?”
Misty says she’s just joking. Of course Harry Wilmot’s dead.
With a number 4 squirrel brush, she’s dabbing shadows into the forest. Days she’s wasted locked up here in this room, and nothing she’s done is half as good as the sketch of a chair she did while shitting her pants. Out on Waytansea Point. Being menaced by a hallucination. With her eyes shut, food-poisoned.
That only sketch, she’s sold it for a lousy fifty bucks.
On the phone, Detective Stilton says, “Are you still there?”
Misty says, “Define there .”
She says, “Go. See Peter.” She’s putting perfect flowers in a perfect meadow with a number 2 nylon brush. Where Tabbi is, Misty doesn’t know. If Misty’s supposed to be at work right now, she doesn’t care. The only fact she’s sure about is she’s working. Her head doesn’t hurt. Her hands don’t shake.
“The problem is,” Stilton says, “the hospital wants you to be present when I see your husband.”
And Misty says she can’t. She has to paint. She has a thirteen-year-old kid to raise. She’s on the second week of a migraine headache. With a number 4 sable brush, she’s wiping a band of gray-white across the meadow. Paving over the grass. She’s excavating a pit. Sinking in a foundation.
On the paper in front of her, the paintbrush kills trees and hauls them away. With brown paint, Misty cuts into the slope of the meadow. Misty regrades. The brush plows under the grass. The flowers are gone. White stone walls rise out of the pit. Windows open in the walls. A tower goes up. A dome swells over the center of the building. Stairs run down from the doorways. A railing runs along the terraces. Another tower shoots up. Another wing spreads out to cover more of the meadow and push the forest back.
It’s Xanadu. San Simeon. Biltmore. Mar a Lago. It’s what people with money build to be protected and alone. The places people think will make them happy. This new building is just the naked soul of a rich person. It’s the alternate heaven for people too rich to get into the real thing.
You can paint anything because the only thing you ever reveal is yourself.
And on the phone, a voice says, “Can we say three o’clock tomorrow, Mrs. Wilmot?”
Statues appear along the perfect roofline of one wing. A pool opens in one perfect terrace. The meadow is almost gone as a new flight of steps runs down to the edge of the perfect woods.
Everything is a self-portrait.
Everything is a diary.
And the voice on the phone says, “Mrs. Wilmot?”
Vines scramble up the walls. Chimneys sprout from the slates on the roof.
And the voice on the phone says, “Misty?” The voice says, “Did you ever request the medical examiner’s records for your husband’s suicide attempt?” Detective Stilton says, “Do you know where your husband might have gotten sleeping pills?”
Just for the record, the problem with art school is that it can teach you technique and craft, but it can’t give you talent. You can’t buy inspiration. You can’t reason your way to an epiphany. Develop a formula. A road map to enlightenment.
“Your husband’s blood,” Stilton says, “was loaded with sodium phenobarbital.”
And there’s no evidence of drugs at the scene, he says. No pill bottle or water. No record of Peter ever having a prescription.
Still painting, Misty asks where this is going.
And Stilton says, “You might think about who’d want to kill him.”
“Only me,” Misty says. Then she wishes she hadn’t.
The picture is finished, perfect, beautiful. It’s no place Misty’s ever seen. Where it came from, she has no idea. Then, with a number 12 cat’s-tongue brush full of ivory black, she wipes out everything in sight.
ALL THE HOUSES along Gum Street and Larch Street, they look so grand the first time you see them. All of them three or four stories tall with white columns, they all date from the last economic boom, eighty years ago. A century. House after house, they sit back among branching trees as big as green storm clouds, walnuts and oaks. They line Cedar Street, facing each other across rolled lawns. The first time you see them, they look so rich.
“Temple fronts,” Harrow Wilmot told Misty. Starting in about 1798, Americans built simple but massive Greek Revival facades. By 1824, he says, when William Strickland designed the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, there was no going back. After that, houses large and small had to have a row of fluted columns and a looming pediment roof across the front.
People called them “end houses” because all this fancy detail was confined to one end. The rest of the house was plain.
That could describe almost any house on the island. All facade. Your first impression.
From the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to the smallest cottage, what architects called “the Greek cancer” was everywhere.
“For architecture,” Harrow said, “it was the end of progress and the beginning of recycling.” He met Misty and Peter at the bus station in Long Beach and drove them down to the ferry.
The island houses, they’re all so grand until you see how the paint’s peeled and heaping around the base of each column. On the roof, the flashing is rusted and hangs off the edge in bent red strips. Brown cardboard patches windows where the glass is gone.
Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.
No investment is yours forever. Harry Wilmot told her that. The money was already running out.
“One generation makes the money,” Harrow told her once. “The next generation protects the money. The third runs out of it. People always forget what it takes to build a family fortune.”
Peter’s scrawled words: “... your blood is our gold ...”
Just for the record, while Misty drives to meet Detective Stilton, the whole three-hour drive to Peter’s warehousing facility, she puts together everything she can remember about Harrow Wilmot.
The first time Misty saw Waytansea Island was while visiting with Peter, when his father drove them around in the old family Buick. All the cars in Waytansea were old, clean and polished, but their seats were patched with clear strapping tape so the stuffing stayed inside. The padded dashboard was cracked from too much sun. The chrome trim and the bumpers were spotted and pimpled with rust from the salt air. The paint colors were dull under a thin layer of white oxide.
Harrow had thick white hair combed into a crown over his forehead. His eyes were blue or gray. His teeth were more yellow than white. His chin and nose, sharp and jutting out. The rest of him, skinny, pale. Plain. You could smell his breath. An old island house with his own rotting interior.
“This car’s ten years old,” he said. “That’s a lifetime for a car at the shore.” He drove them down to the ferry and they waited at the dock, looking across the water at the dark green of the island. Peter and Misty, they were out of school for the summer, looking for jobs, dreaming of living in a city, any city. They’d talked about dropping out and moving to New York or Los Angeles. Waiting for the ferry, they said they might study art in Chicago or Seattle. Someplace they could each start a career. Misty remembers she had to slam her car door three times before it would stay shut.
This was the car where Peter tried to kill himself.
The car you tried to kill yourself in. Where you took those sleeping pills.
The same car she’s driving now.
Stenciled down the side now, the bright yellow words say, “Bonner & Mills—When You’re Ready to Stop Starting Over.”
What you don’t understand you can make mean anything.
On the ferry that first day, Misty sat in the car while Harrow and Peter stood at the railing.
Harrow leaned close to Peter and said, “Are you sure she’s the one?”
Leaned close to you. Father and son.
And Peter said, “I’ve seen her paintings. She’s the real deal ...”
Harrow raised his eyebrows, his corrugator muscle gathering the skin of his forehead into long wrinkles, and he said, “You know what this means.”
And Peter smiled, but only by lifting his levator labii, his sneer muscle, and he said, “Yeah, sure. Fucking lucky me .”
And his father nodded. He said, “That means we’ll be rebuilding the hotel finally.”
Misty’s hippie mom, she used to say it’s the American dream to be so rich you can escape from everyone. Look at Howard Hughes in his penthouse. William Randolph
Hearst in San Simeon. Look at Biltmore. All those lush country homes where rich folks exile themselves. Those homemade Edens where we retreat. When that breaks down, and it always does, the dreamer returns to the world.
“Scratch any fortune,” Misty’s mom used to say, “and you’ll find blood only a generation or two back.” Saying this was supposed to make their trailer lifestyle better.
Child labor in mines or mills, she’d say. Slavery. Drugs. Stock swindles. Wasting nature with clear-cuts, pollution, harvesting to extinction. Monopolies. Disease. War. Every fortune comes out of something unpleasant.
Despite her mom, Misty thought her whole future was ahead of her.
At the coma center, Misty parks for a minute, looking up at the third row of windows. Peter’s window.
These days, Misty’s clutching the edge of everything she walks past, doorframes, countertops, tables, chair backs. To steady herself. Misty can’t carry her head more than halfway off her chest. Anytime she leaves her room, she has to wear sunglasses because the light hurts so much. Her clothes hang loose, billowing as if there’s nothing inside. Her hair ... there’s more of it in the brush than her scalp. Any of her belts can wrap twice around her new waist.
Spanish soap opera skinny.
Her eyes shrunken and bloodshot in the rearview mirror, Misty could be Paganini’s dead body.
Before she gets out of the car, Misty takes another green algae pill, and her headache spikes when she swallows it with a can of beer.
Just inside the glass lobby doors, Detective Stilton waits, watching her cross the parking lot. Her hand clutching every car for balance.
While Misty climbs the front steps, one hand grips the rail and pulls her forward.
Detective Stilton holds the door open for her, saying, “You don’t look so hot.”
It’s the headache, Misty tells him. It could be her paints. Cadmium red. Titanium white. Some oil paints are loaded with lead or copper or iron oxide. It doesn’t help that most artists will twist the brush in their mouth to make a finer point. In art school, they’re always warning you about Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. All those painters who went insane and suffered so much nerve damage they painted with a brush tied to their dead hand. Toxic paints, absinthe, syphilis.
Weakness in your wrists and ankles, a sure sign of lead poisoning.
Everything is a self-portrait. Including your autopsied brain. Your urine.
Poisons, drugs, disease. Inspiration.
Everything is a diary.
Just for the record, Detective Stilton is scribbling all this down. Documenting her every slurred word.
Misty needs to shut up before they put Tabbi in state custody.
They check in with the woman at the front desk. They sign the day’s log and get plastic badges to clip on their coats. Misty’s wearing one of Peter’s favorite brooches, a big pinwheel of yellow rhinestones, the jewels all chipped and cloudy. The silver foil has flaked off the back of some stones so they don’t sparkle. They could be broken bottles off the street.
Misty clips the plastic security badge next to the brooch.
And the detective says, “That looks old.”
And Misty says, “My husband gave it to me when we were dating.”
They’re waiting for the elevator when Detective Stilton says, “I’ll need proof that your husband has been here for the past forty-eight hours.” He looks from the blinking elevator floor numbers to her and says, “And you might want to document your whereabouts for that same period.”
The elevator opens and they step inside. The doors close. Misty presses the button for the third floor.
Both of them looking at the doors from the inside, Stilton says, “I have a warrant to arrest him.” He pats the front of his sport coat, just over the inside pocket.
The elevator stops. The doors open. They step out.
Detective Stilton flips open his notebook and reads it, saying, “Do you know the people at 346 Western Bayshore Drive?”
Misty leads him down the hallway, saying, “Should I?”
“Your husband did some remodeling work for them last year,” he says.
The missing laundry room.
“And how about the people at 7856 Northern Pine Road?” he says.
The missing linen closet.
And Misty says yeah. Yes. She saw what Peter did there, but no, she didn’t know the people.
Detective Stilton flips his notebook shut and says, “Both houses burned last night. Five days ago, another house burned. Before that, another house your husband remodeled was destroyed.”
All of them arson, he says. Every house that Peter sealed his hate graffiti inside for someone to find, they’re all catching fire. Yesterday the police got a letter from some group claiming responsibility. The Ocean Alliance for Freedom. OAFF for short. They want a stop to all coastline development.
Following her down the long linoleum hallway, Stilton says, “The white supremacy movement and the Green Party have connections going way back.” He says, “It’s not a long stretch from protecting nature to preserving racial purity.”
They get to Peter’s room and Stilton says, “Unless your husband can prove he’s been here the night of every fire, I’m here to arrest him.” And he pats the warrant in his jacket pocket.
The curtain is pulled shut around Peter’s bed. Inside it, you can hear the rushing sound of the respirator pumping air. You can hear the soft blip of his heart monitor. You can hear the faint tinkle of something Mozart from his earphones.
Misty throws back the curtain around the bed.
An unveiling. An opening night.
And Misty says, “Be my guest. Ask him anything.”
In the middle of the bed, a skeleton’s curled on its side, papier-mached in waxy skin. Mummified in blue-white with dark lightning bolts of veins branching just under the surface. The knees are pulled up to the chest. The back arches so the head almost touches the withered buttocks. The feet point, sharp as whittled sticks. The toenails long and dark yellow. The hands knot under so tight the fingernails cut into bandages wrapped to protect each wrist. The thin knit blanket is pushed to the bottom of the mattress. Tubes of clear and yellow loop to and from the arms, the belly, the dark wilted penis, the skull. So little muscle is left that the knees and elbows, the bony feet and hands look huge.
The lips—shiny with petroleum jelly—pull back to show the black holes of missing teeth.
With the curtain open, there’s the smell of it all, the alcohol swabs, the urine, the bedsores and sweet skin cream. The smell of warm plastic. The hot smell of bleach and the powdery smell of latex gloves.
The diary of you.
The respirator’s ribbed blue plastic tube hooks into a hole halfway down the throat. Strips of white surgical tape hold the eyes shut. The head is shaved for the brain pressure monitor, but black scruffy hair bristles on the ribs and in the hammock of loose skin between the hipbones.
The same as Tabbi’s black hair.
Your black hair.
Holding the curtain back, Misty says, “As you can see, my husband doesn’t get out much.”
Everything you do shows your hand.
Detective Stilton swallows, hard. The levator labii superioris pulls his top lip up to his nostrils, and his face goes down into his notebook. His pen gets busy writing.
In the little cabinet next to the bed, Misty finds the alcohol swabs and rips the plastic cover off one. Coma patients are graded according to what’s called the Glasgow Coma Scale, she tells the detective. The scale runs from fully awake to unconscious and unresponsive. You give the patient verbal commands and see if he can respond by moving. Or by speaking. Or by blinking his eyes.
Detective Stilton says, “What can you tell me about Peter’s father?”
“Well,” Misty says, “he’s a drinking fountain.”
The detective gives her a look. Both eyebrows squeezed together. The corrugator muscles doing their job.
Grace Wilmot dropped a wad of money on a fancy brass drinking fountain in Harrow’s memory. It’s on Alder Street where it meets Division Avenue, near the hotel, Misty tells him. Harrow’s ashes, she scattered them in a ceremony out on Waytansea Point.
Detective Stilton is scribbling all this in his notebook.
With the alcohol swab, Misty wipes the skin clean around Peter’s nipple.
Misty lifts the earphones off his head and takes the face in both her hands, settling it in the pillow so he looks up at the ceiling. Misty unhooks the yellow pinwheel brooch from her coat.
The lowest score you can get on the Glasgow Coma Scale is a three. This means you never move, you never speak, you never blink. No matter what people say or do to you. You don’t react.
The brooch opens into a steel pin as long as her little finger, and Misty polishes the pin with the alcohol swab.
Detective Stilton’s pen stops, still on the page of his notebook, and he says, “Does your daughter ever visit?”
And Misty shakes her head.
“Does his mother?”
And Misty says, “My daughter spends most of her time with her grandmother.” Misty looks at the pin, polished silver and clean. “They go to tag sales,” Misty says. “My mother-in-law works for a service that finds pieces of china for people in discontinued patterns.”
Misty peels the tape off Peter’s eyes.
Off your eyes.
Misty holds his eyes open with her thumbs and leans close to his face, shouting, “Peter!”
Misty shouts, “How did your father really die?”
Her spit dotting his eyes, his pupils two different sizes, Misty shouts, “Are you part of some neo-Nazi ecoterrorist gang?”
Turning to look at Detective Stilton, Misty shouts, “Are you sneaking out every night to burn down houses?”
Misty shouts, “Are you an oaf?”
The Ocean Alliance for Freedom.
Stilton folds his arms and drops his chin to his chest, watching her out of the tops of his eyes. The orbicularis oris muscles around his lips clamp his mouth into a thin straight line. The frontalis muscle lifts his eyebrows so his forehead folds into three wrinkles from temple to temple. Wrinkles that weren’t there before now.
With one hand, Misty pinches Peter’s nipple and pulls it up, stretching it out to a long point.
With the other hand, Misty drives the pin through. Then she pulls the pin out.
The heart monitor blips every moment, not one beat more fast or slow.
Misty says, “Peter darling? Can you feel this?” And again Misty drives the pin through.
So you can feel fresh pain every time. The Stanislavski Method.
Just so you know, there’s so much scar tissue this is tough as pushing a pin through a tractor tire. The nipple skin stretches forever before the pin pops out the other side.