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Cruelest Month


Painting on copper plate was tricky, thought Peter. Though, as promised, it produced a smoldering, luminous under-glow, imbuing subtle, shimmering warmth to the face in his portrait. In this case, the fragile, contented face of his wife, Donna. Jake, an artist friend and former fellow student who had stayed on after graduation to teach a course or two at the Portland School of Art, had procured a stack of etching plates slated for recycling. These had been used by students and subsequently discarded after unsatisfactory forays into that exacting art form. Knowing how hard up the Abbeys were, he'd given half to Peter, who had kept them in abeyance, patiently waiting to be visited by just the right idea for a series of miniatures that would herald a noteworthy departure in his work.

In the absence of critical or trendily saleable inspiration, Peter had instead embarked on a series so traditional, so intimate in nature that he approached the pieces furtively, almost guiltily. He'd gobbled up odd half-pies of the clock before or after dutifully painting his current, bill-paying commissions, or drafting sketches for the airless, neo-realistic still lifes used as ballast for more experimental paintings. The small oils were rarely controversial or passionate; nonetheless, they were exquisitely executed and nearly always sold, keeping his precarious existence afloat. Laboring under few illusions as to his art career, Peter was grateful for his modest but loyal following of friends, colleagues, and admirers who unfailingly drifted into his exhibitions to swill cheap, tepid white wine and swallow soggy bruschetta. They'd enthusiastically praise his skill, perseverance, and forays into sketchily charted waters, which, if not exactly marked "Here Be Dragons," at least indicated depths unplumbed. They also kept interest buoyant with reviews and notifications in local rags and mags and, when finances permitted, even splashed out for a commissioned portrait of a loved one or pet. Still, once each had already obtained one of his paintings, sales had fallen off, duty done. So, together with Donna's job at the library, the already not-so-young couple got by in a prudent fashion, while the artist's confident supporters looked forward to his breakthrough, his major departure, where he would crest a tsunami of regional, if not national, success.

Early in their years together, Peter and Donna Abbey had, of course, made the back-packing art pilgrimage to Italy. Venice had been magnificently and romantically decrepit, but disconsolately expensive, so they had moved on after three days of museums, enervating, humid heat, vicious mosquitos, and a disappointing music scene. Apart from a competent recital of Italian arias at Santa Maria della Pieta, now known as "Vivaldi's church," Vivaldi's circumscribed compositions, notably the inescapable Four Seasons, were virtually the only summer classical fare on offer. The elegant church's oval interior, with its rotunda and Tiepolo ceiling, had offered some compensation for the workaday musicality of the show-stopping performance of songs. Otherwise, it was hard to believe that the legendary city had ever been a great seat of music. Donna had lamented with a sigh that tourists seemed satisfied with that meager, repetitive oblation. So, after wistfully declining a pricey gondola ride—Donna eschewing the experience by repeating a review that called the wooden seats "hard, right-angled, back-crippling affairs"—they had moved on to other magically constructed, tourist-crammed, heat-radiating cities featuring bedbugs by night and incomparable sculptures, paintings, pizza, and gelato by day.

Together, they had dutifully visited the major art meccas housing so many of the works they had studied in art history classes, Peter excitedly pointing out to his ardent companion details that were masked or undetectable in photographs of the works they now had the privilege to see in person. One of the masterpieces transformed and made memorable to him was Guercino's "Venus, Mars, and Cupid," partly because the goddess's full face, steady gaze, chestnut hair, rounded body, and sturdy legs reminded him of Donna, and partly because of the unexpected naturalism of the painstakingly rendered, unselfconscious hair on the subject's legs. Peter, who had leaned in so close to the canvas that a museum guard felt compelled to intervene, concluded in the end that the attenuated long hairs must have been rendered with a fine, wire brush. Upon their return home, La Donna—henceforth his pet name for her—sat for him while he painted his own Venus, referencing the Guercino right down to the wire brushwork. He called it "The Venus of the Hairy Legs," eliminating the background architecture, flattening the surface paint, and substituting camouflage fatigues for armor, his own face for Mars', and an infantilized version of Donna's face for Cupid's. The painting was Peter's first critical success, garnering heady notices in the press.

The Venus was an unusually large canvas for Peter, the first piece painted in his new studio, a lean-to off the side of an unpretentious, low-ceilinged, wooden cottage they had purchased on Peaks Island. This change in fortune had not occurred without pain and turmoil. While driving to Boston to celebrate their 25thwedding anniversary, Donna's parents had died in a winter storm pile-up on the Mass Pike, leaving their two children a simple, single-family home in South Portland. Donna and her sister had sold the property and split the proceeds. With her share, she and Peter had put a down-payment on the island cottage and set about constructing their rural, bohemian idyll, refurbishing it with yard sale rejects and bits and pieces they cadged here and there.

The painter dabbed the final touches on his first miniature: Donna's tranquil, coppery, resplendent head in profile facing an open window depicting a stark, winter's end landscape where black, leafless, spiky tree branches flanked a gray-brown pond and oversized raindrops plopped extravagantly, backed by a gunmetal sky. He registered the flesh and blood of Donna's wet, slamming entrance into the mud room as he completed his work, following her familiar progress: placing the plastic grocery bags carefully onto the slate floor, removing sleet-soaked outer garments and duck boots, sliding into slippers, picking up the bags again, and dropping them onto the wooden table for imminent unpacking. He took his time cleaning brushes and putting away paints and tins, anticipating the instant she would pop her damp head around the door. This she did shortly, carrying two café glasses of Casco Bay plonk (they had been Rumpole fans back when they had owned a TV) and tenderly kissing Peter's lips. Handing him his glass and clinking, Donna examined her portrait steadily. After an attentive minute, she looked her husband full in his silver eyes and smiled.

"It's very quietly provoking," she said at last. "And, naturally, calmly, sadly beautiful and timeless. Also, an element of bleak."

"April is the cruelest month," he teased, knowing how annoyed she became when Eliot's line of poetry was bandied about as a literal cliché.

They placed their glasses on his worktable and proceeded to trace their fingers over one another's faces, dig into each other's hair, and kiss deeply, unhurriedly, without urgency. Removing one another's clothing with sensual deliberation, they stopped to sip their wine and, as if they had all the time in the world, trailed to the lumpy couch. Peter spread a soft throw on its surface, whereupon the two pulled each other down, easily, confidently, moving in tandem. Then they loved, conceiving Abigail.

Six weeks later, in glorious, blossoming mid-May, Donna burst into the kitchen on a Tuesday after work, catching her rarely culinary-inspired spouse assembling tacos, the fresh vegetables a harbinger of summer. Naturally, he had known of her doctor's appointment that day to have her suspicions confirmed. One glance at her incandescent brown eyes announced a triumphant future. Already well into their late thirties and several years of life together, they had capitulated, resigning themselves to a childless, though no less loving, union.

Peter cursorily wiped his hands on a towel, took his partner by the hands, and danced her from the kitchen to the living room where she fell into a chair, Peter tumbling onto her lap. Laughing, he broke into his favorite rendition, "The Lady is Furniture," sung to the tune of "La donna è mobile." Donna rolled her eyes in mock irritation, pushing at his chest, and said, "That's not what it means." She was the Italian speaker.

Friends and family did their best to dissuade the couple from naming the inchoate child Abigail. Abby Abbey, they sneered, mimicking childhood cruelty, would ruin her life. The prospective proud parents stood firm. They would name their girl after Donna's mother, a solid New England name. She needn't go by Abby; they would call her Abigail, or she might call herself Gail. If she turned out to have a spectacular sense of humor, she might just go by Abby. In fact, there had been no gender confirmation. They were simply determined that the baby was a girl. And so it proved.

In Peter's next copper plate miniature of Donna, the green light of spring seeped through the open window, framing an apple blossom in the foreground overlaying the clear pond. This time it showed her half form, hair down, still in lustrous profile and gazing serenely out. In the following one, the branch was covered in large, succulent, lazy leaves, sun reflecting off the pond. Donna was depicted full body, sitting in a ladder-backed chair and wearing a crimson Empire dress that emphasized her rounded bump. Subsequently, her bulbous figure was juxtaposed with a magnificent, autumnally imbued October. Her hair was regally pinned and intertwined with ribbon, pearls, and glass beads. She wore a floor-length silk gown in deep forest green and an ecstatically introspective expression.

Peter propped the progression of the Donna-madonnas—gestating, reflecting the changing seasonal lambency, and glowing with burnished inner effulgence—in linear order on a makeshift mantelpiece in his studio like talismans. When he grew weary of the comparatively prosaic tasks he had to do for the upcoming gallery show, he moved close to the plates, scrutinizing each one with inner calm and satisfaction. Would he ever exhibit them, so personal, so secret as they were? Only the subject was permitted to enter this sanctum.

Peter Abbey's fall opening at the Bowsprit Gallery, an upscale Old Port institution (privately referred to as BS by artists because it's commission commanded 60% of sales) was in high-spirited, well-lubricated full swing when Donna quietly slipped out to buy a couple of bottles of Freixenet for the after party with select friends. Not quite Champagne, but a cut above what they were imbibing now. With familiar gratification, she observed a few red dots indicating sales on identifying cards beside the paintings. Peter was in his element, giving an impromptu interview for local TV news in his ubiquitous checked flannel shirt and worn Levis. The wife smiled in reflected glory.

She didn't bother changing out of her party shoes, which were almost flat-soled, after all; besides, the wine shop was only a block and a half up the cobbled street. The earlier drizzle had gathered strength, sliced to a slant by a slashing, frigid wind. Donna was pulling her black wool cape across her bowed belly when, without warning, her feet skated forward on a pile of soaked golden leaves. The fall seemed to occur in slow motion like a film montage, so aware was she of each segment: sliding shoes; time-suspended loss of balance as she tipped to the left, her arms flung out for protection; purse flying up, then over and away; then the jolt, thump, thud of her hip, elbow, and finally stomach as she landed hard on the brick sidewalk, scraping her skidding palm. For a still, silent moment, she lay motionless, taking stock of her position, tentatively moving limbs. Then she was assailed by a roar of pain, an all-encompassing, invasive iron ache at her core. The pale, heavily pregnant woman managed to communicate to gathering pedestrians that no, she was not all right, but rather in extremis, that she needed her husband at once, the artist just over there, in the brightly lit gallery. An ambulance was summoned. Two people were trying to help her to her feet when her exquisite brain was torn to shreds, words atomized by the blinding bomb exploding in her head.

It didn't help, though it was meant as a sort of shocked nod of kindness, when all of Peter's paintings were sold that night. Gestures of impotent sympathy. They wouldn't make Abigail's heart beat again, or return his wife or life to him.

Sometime after Donna's fragmented brain began to settle like scattered shards, a gradual awareness descended on her that part of her body was not only damaged, but gone, irretrievably missing. Her mute grief was immense, thwarting the cajoling efforts of caregivers, who endeavored to beguile her into therapies devised to regain speech and movement, to galvanize her will against the pervasive exhaustion. Unless forced to move, she lay inert in a thick, miasmic netherworld, staring dully at the ceiling. Even her husband's steadfast attempts to usher her to safety and comfort were impervious, barely perceptible, within her grayscale emotional kaleidoscope.

Aunt Claudia came in blinding polyester print, in plastic costume jewelry, in sky blue eye shadow and shocking pink lipstick, reeking of cigarettes and cloying cologne. But she came. She junked up the stylish, understated country kitchen with jars of instant coffee and instant meal packets, swept away the strategically placed potpourri, instead sticking chemical air freshener cassettes to the painted walls, and tossed out carefully bundled dried flowers and herbs, turning up her snub nose and hissing "dust catchers." She stacked Donna's tasteful pottery jars in a closet, inevitably demanding to know what had become of the wedding present she had given them. Those cunning animal vases, a set of kitschy, anthropomorphized, pot-bellied, grinning field animals, had been returned to the department store mercifully indicated on the tag and exchanged for flannel sheets in sure conviction that Aunt Claudia would never visit. The interfering woman had bought some silk flowers "to brighten up the place," and those sweet vases would be so cute with them. Peter despaired further. He sensed that not just his marriage, but his home had been swept away by the ravages of an Act of God.

More frequently the artist slept on the old couch in his studio, feet hanging over the side arm, breathing in paint and turpentine fumes instead of his wife's earthy rosemary and lavender scent. Their bedroom had a sterile air about it now, cluttered with an astonishing array of adapted convalescent gear—an adult potty chair, a walker, various monitors and devices designed to facilitate physical therapy—that made him feel as though he should knock and abide by visiting hours. He felt displaced, as well, by Tobias, the well-meaning, muscular young physical therapist who ferried over biweekly to exact his infinitesimal regeneration in the room that had been the Abbey's intimate sanctuary. Peter felt banished.

Still, he spent several hours each day seated by their bed, reading or talking to Donna, trying to get her to practice speech, take an interest in their common world, feel loved, supported, needed. La Donna had been known to wax vehement about how Virginia Woolf's masterpiece of modernism, The Waves, had been unfairly eclipsed by Joyce's Ulysses owing to the great censorship brouhaha. So, Peter set about chronologically reading aloud the complete works of her beloved VW, vaguely trusting that the literary unfolding of the author's oeuvre would carry Donna's brain to a similar breakthrough of clarity. These days, his willfully silly Italian mistranslations, which had rarely failed to elicit amusement, fell flat. The stroke had evicted her command of Italian, like so much else. In her eyes, he read only opaque blankness. Occasionally, he crawled into bed beside his wife, taking her in his arms, stroking her unresponsive body in the old way, whispering sweet somethings, willing her to find her way home. As far as he could see, the results were negligible. He wouldn't give up, of course, but he wondered how long he could sustain the act. Because an open-ended run was definitely required of him and acting was not his forte. Before an unresponsive audience, yet. Come on, Donna, put your hands together. Will you ever smile again? I need a little encouragement here.

Rather than let her perceive his bereft condition, he satirized it in a way she used to relish, particularly unsparing in his sendup of Aunt Claudia. Donna's mate did stand his ground on a few points with the exasperating woman. No smoking in the house; no cigarette butts in the garden; no faux food for the patient or himself. Indeed, in his insistence, the man became a quite serviceable cook. Donna's mother's sister seemed oddly incapable, not to mention uninterested, in preparing anything that didn't pour from a can or package. Claudia, conversely, was convinced that the Abbeys and their "ilk" were just determined to make life unnecessarily onerous by rolling back the clock to a time without conveniences. She countenanced no explanations. For starters, why live in such a backward neck of the woods with no car, no TV—she'd brought her own large, dominating set—no shopping malls? Happily, some of the woman's unshakable notions were the stuff of comedy. Like her conviction that comfortably out-of-the-closet Tobias couldn't possibly be gay, a muscular, clean-cut fellow like that. Or that her husband's death from heart disease combined with pancreatic cancer had had nothing to do with smoking three packs a day for thirty-five years. "It wasn't lung cancer, you know," she would sniff dismissively.

Still, Peter was grateful for Claudia's loyal, genuinely generous, unpaid intervention, and he recognized the futility of arguing matters which basically revolved around taste. So, limpet-like, fairly careful not to offend her, he attached himself to the hope that her good offices would not be required for much longer, like soldiers who always seemed to march off to war saying it would all be over by Christmas. The alternative was unthinkable.

When not executing the enormous paintings for his Christmas exhibition, during the solitary black night hours, an unkempt Peter Abbey wrought two more miniatures from the last of the copper plates. The first was elaborated from his unfathomable anguish, and depicted a disheveled, full-formed but diminished Donna, her lank, lusterless hair hanging in strings, jaw slack and cheek pulled down as though stitched that way. She was clad in a faded white nightgown, peering with those unseeing, opaque eyes out onto the familiar landscape, this time rendered as ice-edged mud. The final piece constituted an act of faith, a prayer. Erect, well-groomed, and restored, she wore a deep purple velvet gown, a soft glow permeating her skin. Her gaze was resolute, though slightly dimmed, as she contemplated their pure, snow-covered dominion with acceptance and calm. He placed this offering on a decorative table easel at his wife's bedside.

The contents of Peter's winter show were hush-hush. The painter refused to divulge any advance information, even to the Bowsprit, except number, dimensions, and hanging instructions, and thereby succeeded in creating a frisson of anticipation hitherto undetected in Southern Maine art circles. The gallery's publicity director made the most of the mystery, so when the evening of the vernissage arrived, an actual unveiling took place for the packed assembly of guests and members of the press, some culled from Boston, one from New York. King sized white sheets covered five very large canvases, which were suspended from the rafters, and were dropped simultaneously after the Director's introduction of the artist. Then expert lighting was focused on every piece in a formal, unprecedented display of drama. The artist was virtually unrecognizable in an impeccably pressed black tuxedo and bow tie, borrowed leather spit-shined shoes, and slicked-back dirty blond hair. He proceeded to point out that this new conceptual approach was a great departure for him, as those familiar with his work were aware, and that it was crucial for the viewer to take note of materials involved. That was all; he thanked them for their attention and said he was available to answer questions, whereupon he clasped his hands behind his back and strode to the side bar, where a crystal glass brimming with Champagne awaited him.

The paintings hung in a semi-circle like some sort of floating half Stonehenge. On the first rectangle, entitled "Noon," shone a dazzling, shimmering egg inside an azure ground. A card on its stationary podium explained that mixed into the oils were pulverized eggshells and mother-of-pearl. Semen had been preserved in a vernice bianca varnish. Attached at eye level was a small transparent glass sunburst filled with more semen. The second rectangle, "Sunset," was painted an orange-peach hue, and encompassed an identical, though somewhat larger egg. This one sported a little hourglass containing a one-third measure of brown earth in its top cone and two-thirds of the same at bottom. The third canvas, "Midnight," was a dark, flat rectangle of predictable midnight blue, through which peeped a penumbra of slightly lighter blue. A hollow glass anchor stoppered with sea water hung in the same manner as the first two works. "Dawn," the fourth, consisted of a pale violet ground surrounding an even paler violet trapezoid. Its glass accoutrement was a dainty flute enclosing wind, as the placard explained, and a tiny white feather. The fifth and final painting loomed infinite and menacing: a black egg inside a black rectangle. A black on black that made Malevich's square seem child's play. Artists like to say that there is no such thing as true black, but surely this was close. The eye was drawn inexorably to the only relief from the empty expanse: a miniscule plaster of Paris death mask smeared with ashes. This one bore no title.

In awkward appraisal, the crowd murmured haltingly at first, as if at a funeral. Ultimately, the bar saved the night, loosening tongues and relieving tension. By evening's end, journalists were floating theories, guests derivations and influences, and it became apparent that a star was born. Friends hung on the artist, some slapping him on the back of his tux. "You did it, Peter," said the Director, putting her slender arm on his shoulder. "This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for. Sad it took a tragedy to make it happen." He stared at the perfectly turned-out woman with such curiosity that a shudder ran from her patent leather encased toes to the dyed blond roots of her hair.

Gliding to the coatrack, he collided with Jake, who slurred, "You're a rock, Pete. You've grown into your name." The new star felt immobilized by cold, as though his veins had been injected with ice. Dropping his slate gray eyes, he nearly expected to see his body naked, unprotected. Peter Abbey had turned to stone.