Danny jumped awake to the heavy rap of knuckles on the hood of the car. Bill was standing there, grinning. He dipped his head to the side, motioning for Danny to get out.
“How’s Mag?” Danny asked as he came around the fender.
The smile faded from Bill’s eyes. “Well, they think it’s a stroke. What kind and how much damage they’ll find out from the CT scan. That’s what they’re doing right now.” Then he brightened again. “But she recognized me. Can’t speak, but she seems to be aware of her situation, you know, got all the lights blazin’ away upstairs, as usual.” He stopped and regarded Danny for a moment. “What about you? How’re you doing?”
The question caught him off guard. Danny nodded and shrugged, “Me? I’m okay.”
Bill’s response was a bear hug that smothered Danny in leather. “For someone who’s doing okay, you sure look pretty damn miserable,” he said and slapped Danny on the back a few times before releasing him. He held the younger man by the shoulders, fixed him with his dark eyes and said, “Mag knows.”
“Mag knows what?”
“Mag knows you,” Bill gave Danny an extra shake and let him go. “She said you’re a good one. That’s her way of saying she likes you.” With both hands he swept his long grey hair away from his face and reapplied the tie that kept it all gathered at the back of his neck. “Anyway,” he continued, “when I got to Mag’s this morning, she told me you’d help.” He grinned. “And here you are.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “So, cheer up, Danny. You’ve been a good friend to Mag, and we’re both grateful.”
Danny nodded acknowledgement.
“And now I have another favor to ask,” Bill said. “Can you drive my car back to the apartments?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Just park it in back next to the dumpster where it says ‘No Parking’.”
“What if the landlord sees it there?”
Bill stifled a laugh. “I am the landlord, Sonny.” He tossed Danny a set of keys. “And maybe see if you can get Mag’s door to lock.” He began to walk away. “I’ll come by after Mag gets settled.” The sliding ER door cut between them, and Bill disappeared around a corner inside.
Danny was relieved to find Bill’s station wagon was an automatic. It was also a boat, with a huge, arched dash and miles of hood. Danny eased it out of the stall, getting used to the brakes by degrees, then drove it slowly out of the lot. He was nervously cautious around turns and in traffic, but Bill’s confidence in him helped. He didn’t even ask me if I had a license, Danny thought, then he laughed. Probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway.
Danny had no success locking Mag’s apartment door. The bolts that held the plate for the chain had been driven deep into the doorframe. When they pulled free, they brought a section of the old woodwork along with them. Splintered and bulging, the jamb refused to let the
door close past the damage. Danny decided to wait in Mag’s apartment until Bill arrived and figured out a way to lock it. He pulled the door closed again and went down the hall to his apartment. There, he used the bathroom, took off his jacket and grabbed a textbook before heading back to Mag’s. The stove clock in his little kitchen read 10:15. Déjà vu. Danny had a feeling of unreality; as if this was a dream, and waking could restore the world he’d lost.
Back in Mag’s apartment, daylight filtered through the woven curtains of the living room windows. Danny drifted in that direction until he stood next to the gleaming wooden dining table. He reached out to touch it again, the surface cool and smooth beneath his fingertips. He walked over to the side of the low coffee table.
“Remind me never to sit there again,” Mag had said.
Tears stung Danny’s eyes. The room was like a stage set; every part of it meaningful, intentional, ready for Mag’s next entrance.
“Just checking my email,” she had said as she breezed into the room, welcoming him. She can’t speak. What will that mean to Mag? Danny looked up at the framed work on the walls. “…and lots of people to share it with.” Mag the teacher. Mag the sensei.
“She’ll find a way,” Danny said out loud, and saying it eased the tightness in his throat.
He made himself comfortable on the soft couch and opened the textbook. He read while the stillness gathered in Mag’s absence. Eventually, he slid the book further along the couch and laid his head in its place. A question finally surfaced as his mind relaxed. Mag told Bill I would help. He rubbed his burning eyes then let them rest behind their lids. Was that before she had the stroke?
* * *
When Danny woke he was warm. He recognized the blanket covering him. It was the same one Bill had used to wrap Mag. He snugged the edge of it up under his chin, relishing the comfort, protected by the weight of the woolen weave. For a moment he was lost to peaceful drowsiness and then his eyes snapped open. The room swept through his field of vision until he registered Bill sitting in Mag’s rocking chair. Bill lifted the fingertips of his right hand from the arm of the rocker and waved them at Danny.
“Aw, my bad,” Danny said. “I did it again.”
“Issawright,” Bill said. His chin rested on the knuckles of his left hand. “I needed some time to think, anyways.” He sounded like he was still thinking. He looked like the thinking was tearing him up. The overhead lighting threw wells of shadow around his eyes and along the deep lines of his stubbled cheeks. His eyes were two bright points of light holding off the darkness.
“Mag?” Danny needed to know.
Bill’s voice was shredded by exhaustion. “Aneurism. She’s not strong enough for surgery, so they’re going to try the next best thing; some procedure that will drain off the blood and reduce the pressure. First thing in the morning. Meanwhile, if she bleeds again, she could be gone.” Bill closed his eyes and rested his head back against the rocker. Danny had only ever seen more suffering on crucifixes.
“How’s your shoulder?”
Bill laughed in spite of his weariness. “Hurts like a bitch,” he said. “I should have run back to my car; it’s full of tools. Coulda got a pry bar, but no, I had to be John Wayne. It was just that her voice was so crazy with fear.” His eyes opened wide and he looked directly at Danny. Danny stared back. “Did you hear her, too?” Bill asked.
“I wasn’t very close to her door,” Danny said, shaking his head.
“I don’t mean through the door.”
Danny’s mind slipped a few gears. It replayed a memory of his own voice saying, “She’ll find a way.” He would ask the question, but he was afraid he already knew the answer. “Mag didn’t call you on the phone, did she?”
Bill’s eyes filled with tears. As they spilled out, he lowered his head and said, “No.” He covered his face with his hands and wept silently, his broad shoulders shaking.
Danny watched from the couch. The site of Bill crying was another of the many shocks he’d received that day that would have to be filed away and dealt with later. For the older man’s sake, he struggled to control himself.
Finally, Bill wiped the tears from his face and ran the back of one hand under his nose. He sat forward on the rocker with his elbows on the broad wooden arms and his hands clasped in front. “I thought maybe you could hear her, too,” he said. “You said my name to the EMT and I never told you who I am.”
“You knew.” Bill seemed slightly impatient. “Intuitive thinking. Mag said you are a good one for that.” He sat back in the chair. “Oh, not this morning. Couple of days ago, on our way out to Spring Green. We had Thanksgiving with some friends. Mag talked about meeting you. Said it was a shame she’d been living next door to you for almost a year and hadn’t arranged to bump into you sooner.”
The room spun a little for Danny, but he managed to ride it out. If he needed to, he could still believe all of this was a dream. How else was he going to deal with what Bill seemed about to tell him?
Bill rocked a little in the chair. He was regrouping. His eyes had regained their fierce intensity. “Getting back to your question,” he said. “Mag called me, but she didn’t use the phone.” He took a deep breath. “I was at my place doing some finish work. An angle grinder applied to a metal weld puts up one hell of a racket. I always use the muffs.” He lifted his hands to his ears and bent his fingers in. “You know, hearing protectors that look like headphones. They cut out most of the noise, but I heard her voice as clearly as if I wasn’t wearing them at all, as though she was standing right behind me on tip toes, her lips to my ear. ‘Bill,’ she said. I was so startled, I dropped the grinder. I spun around, expecting to see her, but I was alone." He paused for a moment as though he heard her voice again. "Then she called from just outside the studio door. And there was something in her voice. Some urgency. I went to the door and looked out at the empty hallway. Then ‘Bill!’, louder, from down the hallway. I reached inside the studio, grabbed my jacket and ran. At the front door of the building, I heard her shout from the parking lot. Now there was hot panic in her voice, and I started to feel it, too. The only thing out in the lot was my car and I ran to it. As I was getting in, I realized I was still wearing the muffs.” He stopped and grinned. “They’re probably still laying there in the parking lot. And my leather apron is still in the corner of the front lobby, and my gloves are laying somewhere in the hallway. And before you start henpecking me about whether the landlord would mind me making all kinds of mess and racket at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning, don’t bother. I own that building, too. I rent out studio spaces, and I hand-pick the tenants, just like I do here, Buster.”
Danny burst out laughing and Bill joined him. After a few moments, Bill said, “I’m glad you can laugh with me after what happened this morning. You kind of got dragged into this.”
“Hey, if somebody had to be standing there the moment you came running down the hallway, I’m glad it was me,” Danny said. “Aren’t you glad it was me? That you didn’t have to trust Mag to a complete stranger?” He stopped and let Bill finish nodding. “Besides, if I was going to run away from all of this, I’d have done it when you broke down the door. That was awesome.”
Bill smiled and settled his head back against the chair. He closed his eyes, but the smile remained.
Danny waited a moment. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“You called Mag your wife.”
“That’s not a question,” Bill said, then laughed. “The simple answer is yes, we’re married, though not a lot of people know it.” He opened his eyes. “We needed some way to preserve our relationship in the eyes of the State, just in case something like this happened. I can speak for her, and stay with her in the hospital. Makes everything easier.” He rocked a little. “Oh, you can be sure that Mag resisted at first. She believes the only thing holding two people together should be love. She’s such a purist. Breaking down her opposition was a hell of a lot harder than breaking down that door.” He paused when Danny laughed. “But, she finally saw the reason of it. We’ve only been married 15 years, but we’ve been together since the moment we first met, all the way back to ‘56.” His eyes lingered on his guest for a moment. “I was about your age when I first met her. Seems like only yesterday.”
“For me, it practically was yesterday,” Danny said. The misery he felt found a perfect reflection in Bill’s eyes. He mumbled an apology. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, issawright,” Bill said, his eyes still on Danny. “You’re family.” With his hands in his lap, he laced his fingers together and gave a little consideration to his thoughts. Then he said, “I’m probably the most selfish person you’ll ever know. Even after all these years with Mag, I don’t seem to be able to change that much.” He looked down at his hands and rubbed the calluses on the palm of one with the thumb of the other. “When you asked how Mag was, I shouldn’t have just given you the diagnosis. There’s more.” He took a deep breath and let it go in a rush. “This morning, when Mag called me, she was afraid she was dying. The only coherent thought she had while she was conscious was to identify you and tell me that you would help. And me, well, you saw me; I was too frantic to question what was happening. Things were calmer at the hospital. She was drifting in and out, but when she was with me she was able to think. At first she didn’t realize she wasn’t actually speaking, and I was such a fool, I thought I was the one who was able to read her thoughts.” He stopped and waggled his fingers in the air as he said, “Ooo, Bill the X-Man.” Another laugh from Danny. “Gradually, it occurred to both of us that Mag was the one doing all the transmitting, and I was only a receiver.” He spent a moment rubbing his eyes. The look of pain had resurfaced. “The paralysis on her right side, I don’t think she’ll be able to overcome so quickly. She’s upset about that.” He pointed to his eye. “Sight is diminished in her right eye, and she’s furious about that.” Bill paused. He was done with his list. “As strong as she is, I’m worried the pain and the disabilities will wear her down. She’s eighty this year. How much can she take?”
“If there’s anything I can do for either of you...”
Bill held up a hand and smiled. “Right now, it would just help me to know you’ll be there if I knock on your door in the middle of the night, because this whole telepathy thing has freaked me
“No problem. I can’t imagine what it must be like.”
“And maybe we should just keep it between ourselves, for now.”
“I’m right there with you,” Danny said. “How is Mag handling it?”
Bill thought for a moment. “She’s intrigued. For her, this link between us is just a part of the universe she’s never encountered before. She’d agree that it’s miraculous, but Mag prefers miracles with rational explanations, even if no human mind can figure it out. She reserves belief for what’s unknown. Better yet, what’s unknowable.” He thought about that for a moment, then grinned. “I betcha, the next time I see her, she’ll have it mastered.” Bill rocked in silence for a moment. “Me? I’m a weakling. I still need my miracles to come from a God who knows what’s going on. One who’ll listen if I say I can’t stand the thought of losing her.”
In response, Danny thumped his chest with his fist.
“What about you?” Bill said. “Where do you stand on miracles?”
“I’m willing to believe in God, but the only God I know seems to enjoy freak accident and irony. I feel the Hand of God in my life when I’m being jerked around by it.”
Bill laughed. “Such a cynic!”
“What can I say?” Danny said. “I’m too old for Santa Claus.”
Their laughter was interrupted by a knock at the door. Bill checked his watch and called out. “Come!”
The apartment door opened and a thin face peered around it. Bill stood and waved the visitor in. “Kyle,” he said, “there’s someone here everyone should meet.”
The young man looked back over his shoulder and signaled with a quick tilt of his head. He entered, followed by four more young men. They wore shaggy hair and three-day-old beards on top and steel-toed work boots on the bottom. In between, was an assortment of leather and denim jackets, concert T’s, hoodies and well-worn jeans. They were silent and solemn.
Bill took care of the introductions. “Danny, meet The Merry Men.” In unison, the group squared their shoulders and took a step forward with a hearty, “Yo, HO!”
Without looking back at them, Bill smiled and said, “I love it when they do that.” He rattled off their names and each waved or nodded when introduced. “Kyle, Paul, Jake, Brian and Jeremy or, if you like, Dodger, Bug, Mitts, Slice and Lord Vader.” There were grins and elbows among the five. “Their real names don’t change, but the other ones do.” Bill glanced back at them. “These guys work for me.”
“Well, we would if you paid us,” Kyle said. The others nodded with murmurs and low laughter. Bill rolled his eyes and held out his hand, palm up. From an inner pocket of his jacket, Jeremy produced a folded sheet of paper. He handed it to the man on his right and it was passed down the line until Kyle opened it and placed it on Bill’s hand. Bill looked it over, grabbed the
pen Kyle offered, applied his signature using the back of Kyle’s shoulder as a desk, and then handed the paper back. “I do pay them,” he said to Danny. There were more elbows among the five as the paper found its way back to Jeremy’s pocket. Bill turned to them and said, “Danny lives next door to Mag.”
Each Man placed his right hand over his heart and in one voice they proclaimed, “All hail Mag!”
Bill turned to Danny, who returned his wide grin. “If you’ll excuse us for a moment,” Bill said, “these gentlemen and I must confer.” The six of them regrouped nearer the door and began a hurried conversation. It seemed to Danny they were talking at once. However, whenever Bill spoke, The Men were silent. When Bill was finished, Kyle spoke alone. He put his hand on Bill’s shoulder, and the others nodded agreement with whatever it was he said. In response, Bill opened his arms and the six of them shared a back-slapping group hug. Then The Men filed out of the apartment. Bill returned to the living room and sat in the rocking chair.
“That was almost as strange and wonderful as Mag’s telepathy thing,” Danny said.
Bill laughed. “I can see I don’t have to worry about you at all.”
“Should I be worried about you?” Danny said as he stood.
“Naw,” Bill said. “I feel a lot better since we talked. You leavin’ now?”
“Yeah, I’ve got to get in touch with my friend, Jessie, or I’ll be in trouble. How can I contact you tomorrow?”
“I’ll probably be at the hospital most of the day.” Bill reached around and pulled out his wallet. He found a business card and handed it to Danny. “My cell’s on there. How do I get you?”
“Well, I don’t have a cell,” Danny said, “and I’ll be at work from eight till four-thirty. I get a break around noon. Can I call you then?”
“Then and any time,” Bill said as he rubbed at the stubble on his cheek. “I’ll probably spend the night here. Closer to the hospital than my place.”
Danny pointed at himself and then at the wall that Mag’s apartment shared with his. “Seriously. Just knock.”
Bill smiled. “Thanks. I’ve got some emails to send and then, hopefully, I’ll turn in. I have a feeling tomorrow’s gonna be a long day.” He held out his hand as Danny approached. They grasped each other’s forearms like movie soldiers before a battle.
“All hail Mag,” Danny said with a smile. “Do they ever do that in front of her?”
“All the time,” Bill replied. “Cracks her up.”
As Danny passed through the doorway of Mag’s apartment, he noticed the jamb had been pushed back into place. Tiny drops of yellow glue seeped from the ragged seams, especially near the wood screws that were driven in to hold it all together. The latch clicked into place behind him as he closed the door.
The short walk down the hallway gave him time to fish the key out of his pocket. He slid it into the door lock and was amazed when it turned without any hitching at all. He turned the key back the other way and pulled the key out. Then he unlocked the door all over again, pleased by the smooth operation, enjoying the moment. Mag told Bill. Danny sent her thoughts of gratitude, not entirely certain that she wouldn’t receive them.
He was afraid to look at the stove clock when he entered his apartment. If it says 10:15 I will scream. Danny forced himself to look. 5:38 -- relief. Now, if only there were no messages on the phone, he could finally relax. He picked up the handset and listened. A stone dropped through the core of his body. The dial tone was interrupting itself. Maybe it’s not Jessie, he told himself. She wasn’t supposed to be home yet. He connected to the voicemail and was told the call came in at 1:52. There was silence and then the sound of the caller hanging up. Danny hit the button to delete the message and replaced the handset. Might not have been Jessie, he reminded himself. I promised her I’d be here. He dialed Jessie’s number.
“Yeah, what you want?”
“Vivi, I’d like to speak to Jessie, please.”
“Well, she’s been waiting all day for your ass to be at home.”
“Is she there?”
“In the shower. She’s gonna be busy tonight.”
“Yeah. She’s going out. Gonna have some fun for a change. Maybe find a boyfriend who waits for her to call instead of the other way ‘round.”
“Vivi. Could you please tell her I called?”
“Tell you what. How ‘bout I hang up on your sorry ass and you can call back and leave your pathetic excuses at the tone. OK?”
“Vivi.” But she was gone. Damn! Danny hung up. He picked up the handset and hit redial. Before the phone could finish playing Jessie’s number, he hung up again. Why give Vivi the satisfaction? Jessie will check the caller ID after she gets out of the shower. Vivi was just blowing smoke. Damn, I hope Jessie’s not that pissed at me.
Danny left the light on in the kitchen and walked into the dark living room. On his way to the lamp at the end of the couch, he stumbled over a pair of army boots lying in the middle of the floor. Ah, Mark is back. The light of the lamp revealed a dirty pair of camo pants and a jacket heaped at the end of the coffee table. The surrounding floor was peppered with tiny clots of mud-bound grass, leaves and twigs. The contents of Mark’s equipment bag lay scattered over the top of the coffee table, the floor and most of the couch. The room couldn’t have been much more of a mess if Mark had walked into it and simply exploded.
Danny was in no mood for this. Mark was going to clean it up this time. Where is he, anyways? Danny flicked on the light in Mark’s bedroom. No Mark. He checked the bathroom. No Mark. Just as he thought about checking the kitchen for a note, Mark sailed in through the apartment door.
“Dan the Man!” he said from behind a stack of pizza boxes. “Glad you’re back!”
“Just what I was not going to say about you.” Danny looked around at the mess in the room.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll clean that up later.” Mark kicked the boots out of the way as he passed them, stepped over the dirty clothes, and slid the boxes across the coffee table, knocking most of his things onto the floor on the other side.
Danny could smell the pepperoni. His stomach clenched and growled.
“Oh, good!” Mark said as he sat down on the couch. “You’re hungry.” He pointed to the boxes one by one. “Pepperoni, pepperoni and sausage, sausage and mushrooms, and, ah, I can’t remember. We’ll find out when we get there.” He opened the first box. “Dig in!” Then he stood abruptly, one hand digging in the front pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a wad of bills. “Here. I think there’s sixty there. It’s not everything I owe, but it should hold you till you get paid again.”
Danny took the money and stuffed it in his pocket. He was trying to remember why he was angry at Mark. I think I can actually smell the mushrooms. Is that possible? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He could hardly remember what he’d been doing all day as he sat down on the floor and lifted a slice from the box. He broke the strings of cheese with his fingertips and shoved the end of the wedge into his mouth.
They ate through most of the first pizza without speaking. Then Mark said, “Hey, the door’s fixed.”
Danny caught a glob of topping as it slid off the slice he was biting into. He chewed and said, “Landlord,” through a mouthful of food.
“I was so sick of that stupid lock always sticking,” Mark said. “I even called you from
the parking lot when I first got back. Thought maybe you could have it open for me when I came in, but you weren’t home.”
“When was this?”
“I dunno. Maybe two or so.” Mark opened the next box. “So where were you? With Jessie?”
“No,” Danny said as he bit into another slice. “Next door.”
Mark cackled with laughter. “Yeah, you and the old lady!” He slapped the top of the coffee table. “I can totally see that!”
“No,” Danny said, beginning to laugh. “I’m serious.” Mark laughed even louder, and this time Danny had to join him. He tried to say, “I’m not kidding,” but he couldn’t laugh, chew and talk at the same time. Mark slumped sideways on the couch, helpless. “No,” Danny finally managed to say, “it was me and the landlord.”
“Stop!” Mark yowled. He had his arms wrapped around himself. “You’re killin’ me!”
Danny gave up. He rolled back on the floor and laughed at the ceiling.
“What’s,” Mark started then tried it again. “What’s Jessie gonna say when she finds out?”
“What’s Jessie gonna say when she finds out what?” Jessie said from the open doorway. She was unbuttoning her coat. “You guys were laughing so loud you couldn’t hear me knock.” She closed the door and slipped out of her coat.
Danny stood up, a half-eaten piece of pizza in one hand. He suddenly remembered Vivi hanging up on him. Jessie hooked her coat on the door knob of the closet and walked into the living room until she stood toe to toe with Danny. She locked eyes with him. Danny’s mind searched for the right way to begin his apology. essie grabbed his wrist and raised the slice of pizza to her mouth. She took a huge bite and chewed, still holding Danny’s eyes. He began to grin.
“When Jessie finds out what?” she repeated as she chewed.
“Oh, nothing,” Mark sniggered, “just Danny’s threesome with the landlord and the old lady next door.”
Jessie raised her eyebrows. Still grinning, Danny waggled his eyebrows up and down. With her hand still clamped on Danny’s wrist, Jessie headed to his bedroom. “Come on,” she said. “You can tell me all about it afterwards.”
“Aw,” Danny whined, “you know I hate to talk afterwards.”
“’Scuze us, Mark,” Jessie said. “Danny’s got some splainin’ to do.”
“Whatever you wanna call it,” Mark said and he grabbed another slice of pizza.
* * *
“Did she really call Felder an officious son-of-a-bitch?” Jessie was wearing one of Danny’s t-shirts, and when she bent over to pull the last box of pizza from the open fridge, Danny got a stunning view down the front of her body, from collarbones to crotch.
“Danny,” Jessie’s voice finally accompanied the image framed by the gaping v-neck that
was devouring her boyfriend’s mind. “Danny, are you in there? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said. “You’re perfect.” He watched his own hands begin a slow search for Jessie’s breasts through the t-shirt she wore.
Jessie moved closer, setting the pizza box on the counter behind him and laid her body against his. “Didn’t you get enough?”
Danny shifted his hands to the small of Jessie’s back. “No, never enough,” he said with his cheek buried in her hair.
She chuckled. “Well I didn’t get enough. I’m hungry.” She reached under the lid of the pizza box and pulled out a slice. “Danny, come on now, I’m serious. What’s wrong?” She leaned back so that she could see his eyes. “You’re different.”
He gazed at her with his hands at rest on her hips. “I am different,” he said. “I’m like Peter Parker after he got bit by the spider, and now I’m starting to change.”
Jessie frowned and chewed. “Elaborate,” she said.
Danny thought of what he told Bill about being jerked around by the Hand of God. He didn’t know where to begin. “These past few days have been terrible and wonderful. Finding Mag, now losing her. Feels like a version of me that could have been -- is about to slip away with her.” His hand drifted up to Jessie’s shoulder and his fingertips lightly traced the lines of the tendons on the side of her neck. “And then, when you and I were doing the phone tag thing, I was afraid I was losing you, too. I was sure you were thinking that I don’t appreciate you enough, and now I know. Here you are, and I know that I can never appreciate you enough.”
While Danny was speaking, Jessie’s frown softened. She finished chewing as she considered the piece of crust in her hand. Then she set it down without taking another bite. She put both hands on Danny’s chest and gently gathered two fistfuls of the t-shirt that he wore. She looked up into his eyes. “You’re not losing me, okay? Not over something as silly as a couple of missed phone calls. Don’t ever doubt us. We’re for real.”
“The only thing that is,” Danny agreed and moved closer.
Jessie gently evaded the kiss on the mouth, and Danny’s lips found her neck instead. “Wassa matter?” he said, still nuzzling.
“I only meant that you don’t have to worry about us while you’re worried about Mag.”
Danny brought his head up stiffly. He considered for a moment. “Don’t wanna go there.”
“Avoidance will get you nowhere.” She was only playing, so she was astonished when Danny’s face crumpled and he began to cry. She wrapped her arms around him. “Oh, Danny, I’m so sorry.” She held him and waited until he was quiet again.
Finally, Danny wiped his eyes with his fingertips. “If it isn’t all just a big coincidence, then it’s God laughing at me.”
Jessie forced back a smile. “I’m sure your relationship to God isn’t ‘favorite punching bag’. And coincidence isn’t all that’s left. Even if it wasn’t meant to be, there can still be meaning.”
Danny stared at Jessie for a moment. “That’s weird.”
Jessie thought she’d gotten it wrong. “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to help.”
“It’s not that.” Danny delivered a quick kiss to Jessie’s forehead, and whispered, “Thank you.” Then he grasped Jessie’s hands. “It’s that Mag said almost those same words to me.”
“Oh,” Jessie said. “Great minds think alike?” The irony of what she was about to say made her grin. “Just a coincidence?”
Danny smiled and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. Sorry Bill. Then he looked back down at Jessie. “Well, hang on, because here’s where it gets even weirder.”
He told Jessie everything.
* * *
“I mean, not only is she on board, she’s freakin’ charged about it,” Danny said. The payphone he was using hung on the wall outside of the campus bookstore. He kept his voice as low as possible in the crowded place.
“Well, that’s better than havin’ her call 911, I suppose,” Bill replied. “I guess you had to tell her, but no one else, okay?” There was silence over the connection. “Danny?”
“I am not okay with this, Bill.”
“Oh, now, Danny…”
“I thought the telepathy thing was pretty awesome, but that was when it was only happening to you.”
“Oh, so that made it alright?”
“Yeah, if it was coming from Mag. Mag is amazing, but this? Jessie thinks we’re being brought together for some reason. Mag couldn’t be doing this.”
“Hmm…I know it’s a step down from Mag, but how about God?”
“I kicked that habit a long time ago, remember?”
“Right! Once you open the door, you gotta let in the whole fucking parade. I’m not up for that.”
“Alright, calm down,” Bill said. “Just a minute. Mag’s awake again. I have to get back in the room.”
Danny wiped the sweat from his hairline while he waited for Bill to get back on the phone.
He had already spent half of his fifteen-minute break and he still needed time to return for the rest of his shift. Come on, Bill. Danny could hear Bill’s voice as though the cell was in the same room with him, but nowhere near his ear.
“Hey,” Bill said finally. “Mag wants to know if you’ve heard her voiceor if you’re still only getting pictures?”
“Just pictures,” Danny said. “Say ‘hi’ to her for me.”
After a pause, Bill said, “Mag says great minds think alike. That’s what she’s been trying to say to you.”
Danny had a sudden vivid memory of Mag standing with her hand out and her green eyes flashing with amusement. “Mag Lewis,” she said. Danny almost sobbed in response. What’s the matter with me? I’m losin’ it. “Hey, Bill,” he said to distract himself, “can she hear you yet?”
“No, I still have to talk out loud.” A pause. “What do you mean only a matter of time? Woman, you need to rest. See, I told you, Danny, she’s got a mountain to climb and she’s lovin’ it.”
“Look, Bill, I gotta get back to work here. When can I visit?”
There was a muffled conversation on Bill’s end. After a pause Bill said, “Mag says no.”
“No?” At first, Danny thought Bill was joking.
Then Bill whispered into the phone, “It’s the anesthetic. She’s still a bit woozy.” -- then in a normal tone -- “What, Mag? No, no, I just think you might change your mind after you’ve had some rest.” A pause. “Oh, Mag, I’m not patronizing you, but it would mean a lot to the kid if… tell him what? Alright, okay…yes, ma’am, loud and clear.” Bill took a deep breath and blew it out with the phone next to his cheek. “Mag says not here. You don’t need to see her like this. In the hospital. Wait until she gets home.” Silence. “Danny?”
“Yeah, okay, I guess,” Danny said. He felt like The Hand was at work again.
“Mag says, ‘Remember, an omelet by any other name…’”
The image of two grey patties in clay-colored gravy popped into his mind.
“Does that make any sense?” Bill asked.
Danny laughed in response. “Yeah, it does. Tell Mag this; when she says leap, I close my eyes and ask, ‘How far?’”
The message was relayed. “She’s laughing,” Bill said. “Out loud!” Some of the strain lifted from his voice. “Thanks, Danny,” he whispered.
Okay, Danny thought as he walked back to work, it’s not over yet.
* * *
Danny saw Jessie the next day in Rick Felder’s drawing class. They set up their easels next to each other as they talked.
“Bill says Mag’s doing so well, she may be able to come home by the end of the week.”
“That’s great,” Jessie said. “You still connected?”
“Like a freakin’ lab experiment. I feel like I should be taking notes or something.”
Rick Felder interrupted the low murmurings of the room with a noisy entrance. “Alright,” he said as he clapped his hands loudly. “Let’s get settled.” He wove his way through the easels and took center stage on the model’s platform. He stood with his palms pressed together, the tips of his fingers resting against his lips, his brow knotted into deep furrows. A moment after the whispers in the room died away, he held up his hands for silence. “This is going to be a short session today. We’ll skip the critique of your class work. The next critique will be on Tuesday when you will each present your self-portraits to the class. Today we’ll concentrate on two ten-minute exercises and one twenty-minute study. He looked over his shoulder at Angela, who was making an adjustment to a small space heater on the platform.
“I do apologize for this abbreviated class,” Felder continued, resuming his frown. “A dear friend of mine had a stroke over the weekend, and I was hoping to visit her yet today. I don’t know how many of you have ever heard of Mag Lewis. She was once an instructor in this department. She is greatly revered by the faculty here, some of whom were her students, including yours truly. If you could, please keep her in your prayers.” With a hand over his heart, he stepped off the platform, adding, “A ten-minute pose, please, Angela.”
Danny looked at Jessie and mouthed the words. “Dear friend?”
Jessie stifled a laugh, then screwed up her face and pinched her nose closed, while Danny nodded in agreement.
On the platform, Angela slipped out of her robe and stepped over to the stool near the front of the platform. Danny clamed himself as he watched the woman move her weight onto her right leg, swing the left one back as she griped the edge of the round seat at six and twelve o’clock. She looked as though she was about to pick it up. She raised her face to the wall at the back of the room, found a focal point and said, “set” in a cool voice.
All over the room, charcoal, markers and pencils began hissing over sheets of newsprint. Danny chose a silvery piece of vine charcoal. He snapped the round stick in two, blew off the dust, and rolled the stick between his fingers. He knew that if he could float the soft charcoal in the grip of his thumb and forefinger that it would respond instantly to the demands of his eye, leaving a raspy, living line.
With rapid glances at the model, he began laying out the figure on the page. Angela’s left hand on the front of the stool was the center of the drawing. Danny indicated it with a few quick strokes, the line of the thumb, the line of the knuckles. Then he moved his hand up the page and set the charcoal on the paper to place the left shoulder. He drew the hard line that rounded the deltoid and softened it where it lay atop the trapezius until it disappeared at the back of the woman's neck. From there, he dropped down and over to place the right shoulder, the far corner of the base of a triangle with Angela’s head at the apex. He quickly outlined her skull with an oval curve at the top and a wedge to show the direction of the chin. Next he set the dark chalk at the point of meeting between the collarbones and the sternum. For a moment he took a visual measurement of the angle of the shoulders and the contra-pasto tilt of the hips, his open fingertips tracing an invisible line from the center of Angela’s chest to her navel. He lightly outlined the curve of her belly to the base of the pubis and struck a line along the top of the thigh to the hard curve of the weight-bearing hip. With a single heavy stroke, he descended along the outside of the right thigh, hitching up just above the knee and scooping around the lower end of the interior vastus. Looping down again, he swung to the outside of the calf, hard-lining the contour of the tight muscles bundled there, and then draped the line over the top of the foot to the base of the tibia where it delicately showed itself on the inner side of Angela’s ankle.
The time had come to place Angela in her space. He drew a line where the toes rested on the platform, indicating the same for the edge of the heel. The ground line of the left foot came next, the shadow beneath the slightly raised sole becoming a line of the same dark value. The left knee, like the foot, placed slightly above its counterpart on the page, was the last element of the trapezoid that would define the space occupied by Angela’s legs.
The location of the left hip, with a lax glute peeking out from behind, was one corner of the base of another volume claimed by Angela’s arms and upper torso. The sloping line between her hips was the reverse of the one between her shoulders. The line of the pelvis descended away from Danny from his left to his right. The line across the shoulders, however, rose toward him, and it was the spatial conversation between these points and Angela’s hands that allowed her to lean over the stool in front of her.
Now that the stage was set, it was time to tell the story. “The work will speak when you find your voice,” Mag said on the night she and Danny looked over his drawings. “The rhythm of contrast, the movement within the space, the gesture of the line; they’ve all got to sing the same song.” While Mag made this sweeping statement, she launched into a drawing to demonstrate it. On the page in front of her, she transfigured the snap-shot pose in one of Danny’s drawings into a fluid dance of light and shadow, mass and line, void and substance. When she was done, the woman in the drawing could have stood up and walked off the page. And then Mag really blew Danny away. She immediately began another drawing of the same pose, but from another angle. “Knowledge and observation are your most important tools,” she said, “but don’t let them drown out the chorus. Let everybody sing!” She talked her way through the entire drawing, making all of her decisions clear. As she finished, she gave Danny silence. She had pushed him hard, and now she hoped he would push back. You’ve still got things to learn, so don’t tell me you can never do this!
After a moment of consideration, Danny had simply said, “The model had blonde hair, I think.”
Good for you, Mag thought, but out loud she said, “The hair becomes a dark shape that helps balance the composition. Let the drawing tell its own story.”
Its own story. Danny thought about Mag’s words. Hadn’t Jessie said something similar? Something about a language we should all speak? Well, the drawing won’t have much to say if I run out of time for the pose. And he was ready to wrap it up. All he needed was the hook. Something, some detail, some nuance to give voice to the image.
From behind, on his right, he heard Felder whisper instructions to a student. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call time for the pose and tell everyone to take five.” Then the door at the back of the room opened and closed. A moment later the hairs on Angela’s forearm rose and her skin pebbled into goosebumps. Her pale grey eyes slid to the left as she registered Felder’s departure. She closed her lids as though she was using them to rub off the image of the last thing she’d seen, and when she opened them again, her eyes were once more fixed on her focal point on the back wall. A short, forced exhale returned her to the concentration of the pose.
Danny decided to start there, with those eyes and that “What-ever” look. He drew the semicircle of the dark rim of her iris and hung the pupil from the soft slope of Angela’s long lashes. He smudged in the shadow at the inside of the left eye, interrupting it with the bright curve of the bridge of the nose, and then plunged into the shadow at the inside of the right eye, nestling the pale bowl of the iris under its own thatch of dark lashes. That thick line was lost in the shadow that pooled beneath Angela’s brow and flowed down to the hollow behind the prominent muscles of her jaw. Danny filled the area with close-set lines, deepening the tone beneath Angela’s sharp cheek bone and under the line of her firm jaw. He quickly hatched in the lighter tone along the length of the nose, around the broad lips and the ball of her chin.
Carefully, he recorded the meeting of the lips with a line that spoke, a line that said, “Don’t get me started!” Pressing the charcoal to the paper, he used broad strokes to bring out the chin by filling in the hollow along the neck below it. To complete the head, Danny began a line that started at the part in Angela’s dark hair and rode the curve of her forehead down to her left brow, over the jutting cheek bone, and down the curve of her face to the point of intersection between the trapezius and the lower jaw. He had already drawn the line of the shoulder, but he decided to raise it for emphasis, as punctuation to the line of the lips, understatements of defiance.
The arm extending forward was another gesture of strength. Danny drew the shadow along the inner side, rounding beneath the deltoid, sweeping into the inner elbow and raising the supinator under those sensitive, fine hairs along Angela’s forearm. The shadow gathered to a ribbon near the wrist then opened shallowly across the back of the hand, settling between the ridges of the tendons which radiated to the knuckles. The fingers extended these lines, each one curled around the front edge of the stool seat. Danny used thin, hard lines where the bones lay just below the skin.
By drawing the strength of that hand, he discovered that Angela was not only about to pick up the stool, she was about to throw it at somebody. Danny moved up and into the drawing to the lever of the right elbow then tracked a foreshortened curve down the arm, folding the base of the line across the inside of the wrist before precisely outlining the shape of the thumb and the fleshy pad of its abductor. On its inner side, the line of the right arm stretched along the inner tendons of the wrist, then softened as it became the soft curve of Angela’s belly, deepened to trace the crevice where forearm met ribcage, then disappeared altogether behind the orb of the right breast. Danny hatched in the deep shadow which gathered at the intersection of the arm, the shoulder and the torso. Angela’s breast originated there and swung out to the upturned nipple, then lay against the chest wall as a soft bulb. The line supporting it disappeared into the base of the sternum before it re-emerged to cradle the left breast where it hung behind Angela’s left arm. Danny gave the breast volume by cupping it with shadow on its interior side. He threw a medium tone across the right half of the torso, deepening the well of the navel, feathering the top of the hairline at the lowest curve of Angela’s abdomen.
The disc of the stool seat interrupted Danny’s view across the hips. He drew its hard edge between Angela’s fingers and beneath the palm of her right hand. Then he dropped the long straight lines of the stool legs and the intersecting rungs, using a heavy stroke to give form to their shaded sides, leaving the lit sides undrawn. Behind this bit of furniture lay Angela’s right leg and the shapes of it were revealed through the open spaces of the stool supports. Since the front of Angela’s left leg was fully lit, Danny concentrated his efforts on the shadowed line of the back of the knee and the calf. He lightly spread the shadow to the inside of the lower leg and the instep of the foot, and that was enough to fix the limb to the ground line and to balance the pose.
With all of the essential work done, Danny went back into the figure to add a line of definition or deepen a tone. With a few quick flicks of the charcoal he brushed in Angela’s tied-back hair style, filling it in as a dark mass on the right side of her head. The other side was streaked by highlights, so he revealed the shining perimeter with a background of mottled grey. In this manner, he followed the contour of the figure down its left side, defining it where it was most brightly lit by drawing in the tones of the background instead.
He was working the shadows on the platform when Felder called, “Time!” from the back of the room. Danny hadn’t even heard him come in. “Five minutes, everyone,” Felder added as Angela broke the pose and turned to pick up her robe.
Danny felt released. He straightened and stepped back from the easel. The drawing coalesced from a collection of marks and smudges into a startlingly complete picture. Heat began to rise in his face when he finally took it all in. The Angela made of charcoal and paper charged the picture plane, her mood was almost fierce. Danny had drawn with cool assurance, yet every line spoke simmering rage. He rolled the stub of the charcoal between his thumb and finger and discovered it was no larger than the size of his nail. He tried to drop it into his equipment box, but it stuck in the grove pressed into the pad at the tip of his finger. With a shake he dislodged it, a triangular lump of soot.
As was customary, everyone in the room was moving around, taking the opportunity of the break to look over each other’s drawings. Danny glanced at his easel. Angela’s body glared back at him. He turned away from it, and met Jessie’s eyes. There were no words for the expression she wore; half joyful wonder, half questioning concern. He grinned weakly and stepped around her, the perpetrator fleeing the scene of the crime.
He tried to calm himself by giving his attention to every drawing he passed. Mostly, they were faceless outlines in varying degrees of incompletion, but he tried to find the best qualities of each. After examining the last one, Danny turned to find everyone in the room gathered at his easel. Felder stood in front with Angela on one side, Jessie on the other, and the rest of the students crowded behind. They were all looking at Danny. No one spoke.
Finally, Felder broke the spell by saying, “Another ten-minute pose, please, Angela.” The group broke and began moving back toward their work spaces. Danny willed his legs to carry him through the maze of easels to his own.
As other students passed, Danny received encouraging smiles and high fives. “Awesome drawing, Dude,” was one whispered comment and, “Show Felder how it’s done,” was another. Danny returned to his own easel and Felder backed off. “Very good completion rate, Daniel,” he said as he walked away.
There was only one source of reassurance Danny looked for and that would come from Jessie’s eyes. She was busy preparing for the next drawing. Maybe a little too busy, Danny thought. He waited until she could feel his eyes on her. When she did look up at him, her eyes were cool, level, calm in a way that meant Jessie was still walking the same path as he was. “Spiderman,” she said almost silently. She turned back to her easel at the same moment Angela said, “Set,” from the front of the room.
Danny pulled his drawing pad forward, flipped Angry Angela to the back and ran his hand across the fresh page. Picking a sharpened Ebony pencil out of his tool box, he studied the pose. Angela sat on the dais with her back turned to him. Her focal point lay near the hand that
supported her so that she was slightly hunched forward. Her robe was pooled beneath her and she held its trailing end between the slender fingers of her right hand where it rested on top of her thigh. All very still, very classical.
Danny turned the pad on its side and used a large bulldog clip to fix the upper corner of loose pages to the board behind. With a few light flicks of the pencil tip he located the figure on the page and began working the progression of masses; the roll of the shoulders, the angle of the head and the S-curve down the back to the dimples of the sacrum, the flat bulb of the buttocks and the alternating rhythm of muscle and bone in the legs. He used subtle gradations of tones, no ragged hatching this time, just a smooth application of the soft graphite.
The lines of the drawing flowed from the pencil tip like paint from a brush. By placing just the right amount of pressure on the tip, Danny could create a hard edged contour with a furry midtone on its inner side. The technique was one he’d seen Mag use, and it was perfect for the delicate structures at the back of Angela’s neck and for the ribbons of the folds of the robe between her fingers. Danny was able to complete the details of the fringed cushions on the platform and even suggest a curtained background before Felder called, “Time!”
At the sound of Felder’s voice, the other students closed in on Danny’s easel so quickly he didn’t have time to escape. All he could manage was a step to the side, which allowed Felder a clear view from where he had been standing while Danny worked. Again, no one spoke.
Angela was the last to view the drawing. She stepped off the platform, one hand wrapping the robe around her waist and the other clutching it closed at her neck. She ducked around the easel and stood in front of Felder. The hand at her throat relaxed a little. Her fingertips caressed the folds of the flannel lapel. Her expression was unreadable. Suddenly, she looked back at Felder. The old man’s eyes softened and one corner of his mouth rose in a grin. Angela turned to Danny and said, “It’s beautiful,” before she returned to the platform.
“OK, everyone,” Felder said. “You’ll have ten minutes while we set up the final pose. This will be a 30-minute study, so I would suggest using something better than newsprint.” Before he walked away, Felder leaned toward Danny and said, “You’ve got paper?” Danny reached over to the pad on his easel and drew back the corners of the pages to reveal a sheet of the gleaming white cold press Mag had given him. Felder nodded and followed Angela to the platform.
Jessie stepped close to Danny and whispered, “Bet she asks you for it.” After a moment’s confusion, Danny realized Jessie was talking about The Model’s Prerogative; Angela had the right to ask for any drawing made of her image.
Danny shrugged. “It might not turn out.”
Jessie gave him a “Yeah, right,” grin and returned to her easel.
Instructor and model were busy on the platform, arranging cushions, adding a spot light, building the pose. Finally, Angela settled herself facing the class with her legs stretched out from the platform, ankles crossed, her back supported by a mound of cushions. Her left arm was propped up on the cushion behind her, while her right arm lay at rest along her side, the hand open on the blanket covering the platform. Her weight on her left hip, she seemed to be levitating serenely.
Felder clicked the spotlight on, and it showered warm light onto Angela’s left shoulder from above and behind. Then he walked to the back of the room and turned off a row of ceiling lights, darkening the model’s right side. Immediately, the shadow cast by Angela’s body became part of the composition, and Danny placed it on the page as he began the work of layout.
For a moment, he studied the model, the space she occupied, the pattern of light and shadow. He drew with his eyes. He saw the stroke of the crayon hatching in the tones, riding the contours, filling the shapes with bone and muscle, and covering it all with a layer of warm, soft skin. He closed his eyes and could see the drawing complete, a landscape of lines, a map of the world in a moment of understanding.
When he opened his eyes he was looking at the field of white on his easel, and he saw the drawing superimposed upon it. The strokes of the crayon would occupy the paper like a game of Jenga; pull just one line from the tangle and the whole thing would unravel and slide to the floor. Just a game. A sleight of hand. Trompe l’oeil.
If Jessie was right, Angela was hoping for this drawing. But what would she be hoping for? A photograph would be a better record of her beauty. The drawing had to be about more than that. It had to share this moment with its source of inspiration, steal a little of the model’s life for its own. Mag had demonstrated such transference when she breathed life into his studio drawings. I could never do that, was what he had been thinking as he watched Mag draw, but he wouldn’t admit that to her. She was only showing him what was possible, challenging him, pushing him to that door in his mind where another world awaited him. Mag wouldn’t have encouraged me if she didn’t think I could do it, if I didn’t have what it takes.
He looked at Angela again and still had the feeling she was floating. Okay, you want to float? We can do that. He had chosen to use the thin, square, sticks of conte`, the touch of which was fluid and finely grained, like drawing with a fingertip made of moist clay. He laid the side of the stick against the paper and very lightly drew it back and forth in the space that would be occupied by Angela’s body. Then he rubbed over the conte`, blending the marks into an amorphous ground of soft pink. Sanguine, the color was called. Something to do with blood. When it was spread out, it did look like an old stain. He applied the black crayon the same way, blocking in the shadows of the background and platform.
He had watched Mag use the technique in her drawings. After laying a patch of midtone, she went back in with the pencil, deepening the shadows, defining the contours, hanging the lines in midair like the tendrils of smoke from the end of a cigarette. All the while, she rattled on about the drawing to Danny. “It doesn’t all come from you or the model,” she said. “The drawing will tell you what it needs, if you let it.”
Danny needed the drawing to speak to him now. He went back to the brown crayon and began to lay in the lines of the pose. They hung there, above the stained ground, just as he had hoped. He picked up the black and the white crayons, using all three colors independently, the black for the deepest shadow, the brown for flesh and bone, and the white to catch the light. The lines he drew were fluid, channeling the uninterrupted energy flowing into his eye, down his arm, through his hand and out the end of the crayon. The woman in the drawing seemed to be wearing the lines like tattoos, as though she was covered with some kind of ancient runic scrawl, for protection or power.
As he explored the drawing, Danny was beginning to look at Angela less and the drawing more. The last time he studied her was to confirm the details of her face. And the portraiture on the page succeeded, because the woman in the drawing was identifiably Angela. But Danny thought the Angela of the drawing was more regal, more impervious, maybe more the way Angela the woman wished she could be. He wanted a crown for her, a halo, an aura that would show the singularity of her life force, so he bent the background of the drawing into service to its Queen. ll of the avenues of contrast and movement found their way to Angela, converging on her position, prostrating themselves in the cast shadow before her, or subducting themselves along her lit side to lift her from the page, exalting her before the viewer.
Twenty minutes into the pose and there wasn’t an inch of the paper that didn’t absolutely worship its subject. Danny was drawing rapidly, rhythmically, mostly with the right, but sometimes with his left, using all the facets of the crayons and every spare finger, even once rubbing in a tone with a quick swipe of the back of one wrist. He worked over the whole surface, dancing from line to tone, foreground to background, juggling the sticks of color, stepping into every stroke, swinging his elbows up and through every move. He wished Mag could see how much he’d learned from her. His own voice came back to him. Hit me again, followed by the sound of her laughter.
For the last ten minutes of the pose, Danny didn’t look at Angela at all. He didn’t need to. The drawing had taken everything it could from her before pursuing a life of its own. Now it was giving itself up to Danny, guiding his hand along every firm contour, opening every soft shadow to his touch. Both prize and master, it absorbed his attentions, and Danny gave himself freely in return.
Slowly, the moment passed. Danny began to disengage. Any minute, he thought, Felder is gonna come up behind and nudge me aside. But the interruption never came. Danny glanced up at Angela and found her staring back at him.
“Time, Danny,” Jessie said from somewhere near his right shoulder.
Danny looked down at the stumps of the conte` in his hands. Every finger was covered with muddy smudges of the three colors. He reached out to set the sticks in the tray of the easel. One stuck to his fingertips as he drew his hand away and it shattered into chalky white fragments when it hit the floor. The miniature explosion was the only sound in the room.
After a moment, Felder said “That’s it for today.” His voice had a dismissive tone, one he might have used with children -- your mother’s calling, go home.
Danny could hear the other students moving back toward their easels, gathering their equipment, sliding their work into portfolios. Their voices were low, when they spoke at all. He had the sense that he was in some kind of trouble, and that the others wanted to leave as quickly as possible to avoid the scolding that was coming.
Wha-dye-do? Danny felt anger rising. Why can’t he just leave me alone?
“Daniel, I’d like to talk.”
“I’ll be in the Coffee House,” Jessie said softly, as she gave Danny’s arm a quick squeeze. She shouldered her backpack, picked up her portfolio and made her way through the easels to the door.
Felder stepped into the spot in front of the easel where Jessie had just been. He grabbed the edge of a tall stool and pulled it over. Settling himself on it, he motioned to Danny to have a seat on the studio bench facing him. Danny slid his tool box to one end of the bench and sat. He picked out a rag and began wiping his hands.
Felder was looking at the drawing. He smiled and shook his head. “That is magnificent,” he said. He let a moment pass after Danny acknowledged the compliment with a nod. Then he added, “But you didn’t learn that in my class.”
What I learned in three hours with Mag Lewis, was more than I learned in three semesters with you. It was what Danny wanted to say. One road he could choose.
“The other day,” Danny said, “someone reminded me that, when I was a kid, I taught myself a lot about drawing by copying out of comic books.”
Felder studied the drawing again. “This is no illustration. This says so much. Daniel, this is very advanced. In fact, you may want to hold back a bit, you know, save something for grad school.” Felder laughed at his own joke and then grew serious again when Danny didn’t join in. “Look, Daniel, I’m confused. One day you tell me you’re ready to quit, and the next, well, look at this.”
Danny shrugged. His friendship with Mag didn’t only belong to him. It wasn’t his to use
the way Felder had done at the beginning of class. “I’m just trying out some new ways of
seeing the problem. Looking with a fresh set of eyes.”
Felder frowned as though he was casting about for a distant memory. “Well, whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working.” He paused, hoping for a response. Then he asked, “So, have you given any more thought to joining the mural class?”
Danny was bent over, picking up the shards of white conte` from the floor. He sat up and rolled the pieces in the palm of his hand. None of them was worth saving. He dumped them into his equipment box anyway. “Yes,” he said.
Felder was impatient. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Danny said and looked into Felder’s weak, watery eyes. “Yes, I’d like to join, if there’s still room in the class.”
“Oh, certainly!” Felder said and brightened. “Oh, that’s great. Yes, well, you’ll need an Instructor’s Recommendation for the Registrar’s Office. I’ll have that for you on Thursday. And there’s a course fee, but don’t worry about that. You just let me know if you’re worried about that. I mean, if you need help with that, just let me know. Alright? And then, in March, you’ll need to keep your weekends free for the project, but we can work that out later, of course.”
Danny stood. Felder slipped off his stool and stood, as well. He was very excited, but contained himself by folding his arms across his chest and bowing slightly at the moments when he would have been gesturing with his arms. He continued while Danny gathered his things. “And I don’t know where you stand on credits, but there will be four for this class, upper division, of course. Oh, and don’t forget, at the end there will be a credential in your file for participation in a public art project. That could come in handy when you’re looking at grad school, you know. I know this will be a good step for you. You’ll be a great asset to the team.” Felder fell silent, although he continued to bounce a little, possibly in time to some internal dialogue.
Danny was ready to leave. All that remained was to slip his drawing pad into his portfolio. As he reached for it, Angela approached quickly from the back of the room.
“May I have that drawing?” She knew she could ask, but she didn’t seem to be very sure that she should.
Danny picked up the stub of black conte` and signed and dated the drawing. He squeezed the bulldog clip and slid the sheet from the pad. Angela took it with her fingertips at the very edges of the paper, supporting it as though it was as fragile as a soap bubble swirling a rainbow across its skin, about to burst. Danny had never seen her smile before. He smiled back when she said, “Thank you.”
* * *
Danny flipped the box over twice before he found the shipping label. Even with both of the back doors of the van open, there wasn’t much daylight inside. Just as he was about to read the label, he saw an image of Bill instead.
“Whoah!” he said, “Tell Mag to turn down the volume.”
Bill’s voice was muffled, then came clear again. “She says she’s sorry, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.”
“That was a major ‘download’,” Danny said, and he moved the borrowed cell phone to the other ear as he continued to sort through the boxes. Every time he found one, he walked it over to the open doors of the van and handed it to Jessie, who stacked it on the hand truck.
“So?” Bill continued. “What am I wearing?”
Danny was getting used to these exercises. The image from Mag would flash into his mind, a still picture at the moment of capture. Instantly, it would begin to evanesce, slowly at first, then rapidly falling away into memory.
“It’s a blue work shirt. I think you had something Italian for lunch?”
“Wha? Oh, for Petesakes, Mag, look what I did to my shirt.” Bill sounded as though he was fussing over the stain. “Of course, you never said a word.” After a pause Bill snorted a laugh. “Mag says I’ve always got something all over the front of me. She’s right.”
Suddenly, there was Bill, throwing a wink. Danny couldn’t help smiling.
Jessie saw the smile and mimed, “What?”
“Mag’s giving Bill a hard time,” Danny said. He handed Jessie the last package and jumped out of the van. “Bill, Jessie needs to get this phone back to her friend at work. When will Mag be home tomorrow?”
“She won’t be leaving the hospital until noon. Let me knock on your door when she’s ready. She says Jessie should come, too.”
Danny turned to Jessie and asked, “Would you like to meet Mag and Bill tomorrow?”
Jessie answered with an enthusiastic nod. “It’s about time,” she said quietly.
“She’ll be there,” Danny informed Bill, who passed it along to Mag.
Then Bill was speaking into the phone again. “Good. Mag says it’s about time.”
Danny told Jessie, and the two of them stared at each other for a few moments.
* * *
“Jessie, stop,” Danny took the magazines out of her hands and tossed them back onto the floor beneath the coffee table. “Remember what you told me about not confusing things?” He guided her to a seat beside him on the couch. “You don’t have to clean, okay? We’re not expecting any company. Mag’s expecting company. She’s worried about the mess in her apartment, or, really, Bill should be the one to worry. He spends one week there, and the place looks like Mark moved into it.” Jessie responded with a distracted smile. Danny nudged her shoulder. “You thought I was joking when I said ‘wait till it happens to you’. Freaky, hey?”
Jessie frowned. “That’s not it, exactly. It wasn’t so bad before Mag got home. But now, maybe because she’s closer, everything’s stronger. I know things that I didn’t know before, like I’ve suddenly remembered them.” Jessie exhaled in frustration as she sat back on the couch.
“For instance, did you tell me that Mag fell off a ladder when she was about four years old?”
“I told you that Mag didn’t like ladders. She never told me why. Are you sure you’re not just filling in the blanks?
“It feels like I know it. I mean, not like I was there when it happened, just as a fact. As though somebody told me once and I forgot until now.” She was quiet for a moment. “Danny, I seem to know all kinds of things. I remember classrooms and students, even lesson plans that Mag wrote. Boy, she’s had some great ideas. She’s a really good motivator. She believes that techniques can be taught, but the practice of Art is only revealed in the mind of the student. Knowledge that’s realized instead of transferred. Kind of a Jungian thing, I think.”
“Or ‘Please, hit me again’,” Danny mused.
Jessie considered it. “Yeah, like that, too.”
“You know about that?”
Jessie smiled at Danny. “Mag really enjoyed that evening. She felt as though she’d been waiting for you for a long time.”
Danny was surprised by how quickly his eyes filled with tears. After a moment, he managed to say, “I feel like I owe her so much.”
“You know,” Jessie said, “when I first saw your drawings in class last Tuesday, I thought that somehow you were channeling Mag, like automatic writing, you know? I don’t think so any more. I know that you were doing those amazing drawings. It’s a tribute to Mag that you learned so much from her. And when the other students started copying you in class on Thursday, using the techniques in their drawings, that was a tribute to Mag, too. She raised the level of learning without ever setting foot in the classroom. All hail, Mag!”
Danny nodded his agreement. “I wonder if she’ll ever be well enough to teach again.”
Jessie’s response was silence.
“What is it, Jessie? What do you know?”
“Maybe it’s just a side effect of the illness,” she said, “but Mag isn’t expecting to teach again.”
“Well, she can’t…” Danny began, but his voice failed before he could get the words out. He thought for a moment and then nodded. “She needs us. That’s why this is happening. We’ve been called to Mag to get her through this stroke, to help her heal, you know, keep her spirits up. Bill and the two of us, we’re her family.”
Jessie put her hand on Danny’s thigh and pushed herself up from the couch. “You have a good heart, Danny Reisener.” As she crossed the living room to the bathroom, she added, “Remind me to marry you someday.”
Standing in front of the mirror over the sink, Jessie tried to regain her composure. No matter what she was feeling, if her twin behind the glass could look her straight in the eyes, then she could look at Danny with the same steady reserve. He didn’t have to know that Bill had begged the doctor to allow Mag to return to her apartment, instead of going to a rehab unit. He’d told the case worker whatever she wanted to hear, just so that he could take Mag home, where she’d be more comfortable. What Danny doesn’t know…, Jessie thought. At that moment, Danny’s grinning face appeared in the reflected doorway behind her.
“Did you just sort of propose to me?”
“Oh, knock it off,” Jessie said, grinning back. “You know how I feel about you. Why should it surprise you that I’d want to marry you?”
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “I was just hoping for something a little more…..romantic.” He faked a sob, and disappeared from the doorway.
Jessie left the bathroom, laughing. Danny met her in the living room and they wrapped their arms around each other.
A few minutes later, a knock at the door brought them back to Danny’s living room.
“That’ll be Bill.” Danny went to answer the door and returned to the living room with Bill following. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie, the knot hanging loosely beneath his open shirt collar. Danny almost said when he saw him, either you’re going to a wedding or a funeral, and then he was annoyed at himself for thinking it. The clothes made Bill look thinner and older, and Danny could see defeat in the darkness around his eyes. “Jessie Baker, this is Bill Taylor.”
The two shook hands, but after an exchange of Nice-to-Meet-You’s they couldn’t seem to let go. The moment ended when Bill raised Jessie’s hand to his lips and bestowed a gentlemanly kiss on the back of it. A few loose strands of grey hair fell forward and hung at the sides of his face. “I’m afraid not all of Mag’s memories of me are pleasant ones,” he said.
Jessie’s eyes blazed with tears. “You’re talking about fifty years of memories, and Mag doesn’t regret a moment.”
A smile brightened Bill’s haggard face. He leaned over and kissed Jessie on the cheek.
“For you, my dear, from Mag and me.” He looked over at Danny. “Bring that self-portrait you’re supposed to be working on. Mag wants to see it.”
“I haven’t started it yet,” Danny replied. “It’s not due till Tuesday.”
Bill rolled his eyes. “Reminds me of me.” Jessie laughed, and Bill continued. “Well, Mag’s got paper, just bring something to draw with if you’ve got a favorite.”
Danny headed for his equipment box in the corner. “Is she really feeling well enough for this?”
“She insisted.” Bill watched Danny for a moment. Then he quietly spoke to Jessie. “You know what the doctors said?”
Jessie nodded. “Yes.”
“What about him?”
Jessie shook her head. “I couldn’t. He’ll figure it out.”
“You’re sure about that.”
“Yes. He needs to lose the fear.”
“What fear?” Danny asked as he re-crossed the room. “I didn’t catch the first part.”
Bill raised his eyebrows at Jessie.
“Fear of the empty canvas,” she said. “Fear of the sterile white paper. Fear of the dead lump of clay or the blind walls of the stone block. Fear that the spark of life in your infant creation will flicker and die in your hands. You can’t escape the risk inherent in love.”
Bill grinned at Danny. “Does she always talk like that?”
“Just when it’s important,” Danny said as he slipped his hand into Jessie’s. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Mag’s apartment was bright and orderly. Crisp afternoon sunlight streamed through the living room windows in hazy shafts that pooled in two luminous rectangles on the floor. Bill turned and held his hands up in a “wait here” gesture. Then he disappeared through the first door of the little hallway on the right. Danny and Jessie could hear his voice and then the voice of a woman.
“That’s not Mag,” Danny said.
“Maybe the nurse,” Jessie replied, but her eyes were fixed on a small painting hung at eye level on the dining room wall She walked over to it. “This one is Mag’s favorite.”
The painting was of a lone, dark figure standing atop a high cliff before a misty vista of overlapping islands and faraway mountains. Low, green plants and stubby, rust-orange bushes surrounded the lichen-studded rocks.
“Looks like Bill,” Danny said.
“It is Bill.”
“Bill painted a picture of himself standing at the edge of a cliff.”
“Not just himself. See, he’s standing off to one side of that flat rock There’s room for one more.”
“Oh, I get it. Sort of a wish-you-were-here postcard, eh?”
“They’d planned to do some traveling when Mag retired, “Jessie said, “but they argued, and Mag went alone. Later, Bill went to Europe by himself, visited some if the places Mag had gone, and then sent her this. It had been almost ten years since they’d spoken to each other. On the back he wrote: “If you’ll have me, I’ll stand by your side again one day.”
Danny pulled the bottom edge of the frame outward, looked back at Jessie and nodded. “Is this painting what got them back together.”
“Well, that,” Jessie said, “and Bill quit drinking.”
“Ah,” Danny replied. He thought about his parents’ marriage and wondered, if his dad stopped drinking, would it be that simple? Maybe it hadn’t been for Mag and Bill either.
Behind them, Bill and the nurse emerged from the hallway. The woman was frowning.
“I don’t know, Mr. Taylor,” she said. “She must keep improving. If she refuses to take regular meals, she’ll have to be re-admitted.”
“She’ll eat,” Bill said, “she just has to get settled.”
The nurse’s attention was now on Danny and Jessie. “And I’m not sure that visitors are such a good idea. I thought you and Mrs. Taylor didn’t have any children.” Bill stopped following the woman and maintained a stony silence when she turned to him for an explanation. She continued on her way to the door. “Well, I’ll be back tomorrow. See that she isn’t fatigued by too much company.” She opened the door, ran her hand up the reconstructed jamb, glanced
back over her shoulder at Bill, and left, firmly shutting the door behind her.
Bill released a gush of pent-up air and shook his head. “Then he spoke over his shoulder. “Yes, Mag, we’re coming.”
Just inside the little hallway, two doorways opened, one on either side. The right was dark, but the left was full of the afternoon sun. It was set up as a small office. Mini-blinds covered the windows behind a broad desk with a computer, monitor, and a desktop print/copy machine. The desk was flanked by a file cabinet at the far side and a tall, leather arm chair at the near end with its back turned away from a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The right side of the room was hidden to visitors by a short wall, at the end of which was the imposing arm of a leather sofa, the match of the armchair, and on the sofa, in a nest of blankets and pillows was Mag.
At first, Danny couldn’t recognize her. The woman he saw was shrunken and aged, propped up against a mound of pillows. Blue veins and dark hollows grayed the skin of her hands and wrists, and purple pools filled her temples and circled her eyes. Clumpy spikes of white hair covered the right side of her head, while the left had been shaved, most of the pale, stubbled skin covered by a bulky square of clean gauze.
Danny approached and sat on the side of the sofa. His eyes refused to believe what his mind knew to be true. He searched for Mag in the stranger’s face, looking past the corner of the drawn down mouth and the sightless eye above it to the other eye which looked straight back into his. The bright green caught the clear sunlight and said, I am here.
Danny tried to smile his recognition, but his lips crumpled and he was blinded by tears. He covered his face and slumped forward until his forehead rested lightly on Mag’s shoulder. He could feel her gently patting his back. fter a moment, he sat up. Mag offered him a tissue that Bill had passed to her. Danny took it and laughed a little as he wiped his face. “I’m such a wuss,” he said. “Don’t tell Jessie.”
“She knows,” Jessie said from the chair in the corner. She took a tissue from the box Bill held out to her, and wiped her eyes.
Bill sat back in the office chair in the center of the room. He took a tissue from the box, and blew his nose.
“Mag, you’re killin’ us here,” Danny said. “You gotta start getting well.”
A burst of warm summer sunlight filled Danny’s mind and settled out like falling sparks into the individual brushstrokes of a wind-tossed field of wheat. Winding paths of brown and green were trampled through the ripening grain below, and the heavy downward strokes of a stormy sky threatened from above. A trailing flock of crows, sooty black inverted w’s, floated between the two. They escaped to a clear horizon, which rolled across the middle of the painting in gentle waves of bright cerulean and yellow, a promise of sunlight somewhere beyond. To Danny, this painting had always been a symbol of release, a metaphor for death, the shortest distance between here and there as the crow flies.
Like all of the images Mag sent, this one began to fade, and as the small office returned around him, Danny heard Bill’s voice. “Mag says this, Danny. She says she’s letting go.”
Danny looked into the one bright eye and nodded acceptance. Mag laid her hand on the side of the young man’s face. He turned it and kissed the soft palm. Then hugging her hand to his chest, he said, “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to be happy,” Bill said for Mag.
“Besides that,” Danny said and he managed a weak grin. Half of Mag’s face smiled back at him, and brilliance flooded his mind again. The door that had been opened now swung wide, and beyond was light, and Mag, standing in the light while Danny stood facing her. As she raised her arm to hold out her hand to him, the radiance all around them began to flow into her arm and the hand that she held out. Danny reached out for that hand and when they touched, the light flashed from Mag’s hand into Danny’s, growing as it sped up his arm, and his sight was overwhelmed by it.
“Danny, come back.”
Jessie’s voice scattered the vision and it faded. Danny realized he no longer held Mag’s hand. He was standing next to the sofa. He rubbed his eyes. hey felt hot and dry, as though he hadn’t blinked during the vision. “Does it have to be like this?” he said. “Why can’t I just know it like you do, Jessie?”
“Because this isn’t about what Mag knows. This is about a way of seeing, a way of being. It’s about using the part of you that responds to life.”
At first, silence was Danny’s only answer. Then he looked at Mag and said, “This stinks. Maybe if we hadn’t met in the hallway, you’d have gone on living for years and years.”
Bill spoke. “Mag says, ‘Do you love me?’”
Danny looked into the aged face of his stricken friend and said, “Yes.”
“Then, Mag says, this shouldn’t be so hard.” Bill stood. “Get some paper and we’ll find out how it works.” He was already moving toward the door. “Come on, Danny, I’ll need a hand with the mirror.” Danny exchanged a glance with Jessie and then followed Bill.
The silence that was left in the room gathered around Jessie. She stood facing Mag, her gaze clouded with concern. Finally, she said, “I am not okay with this, Mag.”
Mag reached across herself with an unsteady left hand and pointed to a notebook-sized dry erase board on the small table by her end of the sofa.
“What if he gets stuck in one of these visions,” Jessie said as she picked up the board and its marker and moved to the side of the sofa. “What if he has a stroke?” he handed the fat marker to Mag and held the board so that she could write on it comfortably. “Or what if you have another stroke and he blames himself?”
Mag, held the marker in her left hand, printing in the spiky, tilted, letters of a natural right-hander,
“He’s doing this because he loves you,” Jessie said.
Mag used the eraser pad on the end of the marker, then wrote,
and you, because you love him.
Jessie blinked at the tears stinging her eyes. “This whole thing, taking your thoughts and your memories, makes me feel like some kind of a parasite, a vampire.”
Mag erased, then wrote,
more like a transfusion
“Yeah,” Jessie smiled. “I guess it could be like that. I didn’t exactly sneak up on you in the dark.”
Mag wrote underneath her last entry.
Jessie nodded. “For all of us,” she said.
Then Mag wrote,
fear of the empty canvas
Jessie laughed, “You would look at this as a teaching moment.” She pointed at the board. “Look, even your lefty handwriting has improved since we started.”
Mag handed the marker to Jessie and made a wiping movement with her hand. Jessie erased the board and gave the pen back to Mag, who wrote rapidly, methodically, filling the surface of the board with rounded, even letters. Jessie guessed Mag was drawing them, her left hand as skilled as her right. When Mag finished she handed Jessie the pen.
We create our lives in the worlds we are given.
What are you going to do with your new world?
Jessie stared at the message for a moment. “Don’t know,” she said quietly.
She set the board back on the little table as Bill and Danny re-entered the room. Danny was backing in, bent into the shape of a question mark, supporting the boxy base of a wooden standing mirror, his hands straining for a hold. Bill gripped the brackets that rose on either side.
“OK, go left,” Bill grunted. The mirror’s base hit the wall with a crunch. “Other left.”
“My left or your left?” Danny’s voice was as clenched as his body.
“Just keep it away from the wall,” Bill said. “When I tell ya, pick up on the wall side.”
Danny continued his slow backwards shuffle. When Bill said “Now!” he strained to bend
his right elbow and lift his shoulder to bring the base up and away from the wall. Bill guided the top edge under the door frame and said, “That’s it! Set ‘er down.”
Danny put the edge of the base on the carpet and supported the front as Bill walked the mirror upright. Pushing on one of the brackets, Bill slid the mirror into contact with the arm of the sofa. Then, breathing hard, he rested his hands on his hips and turned toward Mag. “That, my dear, was the first miracle to occur in this room today.” Mag responded with snuffling laughter.
“We’ll get the rest of it,” Danny said to Bill. He motioned to Jessie to follow him. When they were well into the living room, Danny turned and said, “I found out why Mag doesn’t like Rick Felder.”
“He forced her to resign from the University.”
Danny stopped and stared at Jessie. “No, he forced Bill to resign. He tried to get him fired.”
Jessie was shaking her head. “Bill was fired.” In response to Danny’s look of disbelief, she added, “It’s possible he recalls it differently.” She sighed under the weight of remembered emotions that weren’t even hers. “Mag tried to cover for Bill, for his drinking, which only ever got worse, in spite of all his promises to quit. It started affecting his work, and she could see that he was losing control of himself. Others were beginning to notice, and when Rick insisted she do something about it, she resigned instead.”
Danny was silent as he walked over to the paper cabinet. He pulled one of the drawers wide open and lifted the corner of the stack inside. Sliding his arms under the stack of paper, he said, “Could you get that one?” Jessie tugged out the 24x36 sheet and held it in front of her by its upper corners as though she was trying it on for size. Danny resettled the stack of paper in the drawer and closed it, then took the fresh sheet from Jessie and laid it on the coffee table. It was his turn for some head shaking. “I don’t think Bill knows that’s why Mag resigned.”
“She never told him,” Jessie said. “It happened so quickly, and then she left for Europe right away. There’s only one other person who knows why Mag resigned when she did.”
“Her dear friend, Rick Felder.” Jessie looked at Danny to see his response. “Bill told you about the fire?”
“Yeah, he said Felder made a big deal about it. Wanna grab that stool?" Jessie pulled a short, wooden stool from under the workbench, while Danny wrestled an easel free from the stack in the corner. “Felder accused Bill and the students of being drunk. Then he accused Bill of shaming Mag and driving her away. So, Bill broke Rick’s nose.”
Jessie stared. “Oh, Mag did not know that.” She thought for a moment before she added, “Rick had a thing for Mag.” She slid a drawing board out of a slot in the tall cabinet next to the workbench. “He was probably around your age when he first met her.” She walked over to the coffee table for the sheet of paper. “And I bet he never got over her.”
“But he never listened to a word she said either. If he had, he wouldn’t be so small.”
“Mag was a gift he never opened.” Jessie grabbed the seat of the stool as she passed it, joining Danny on his way to the room. “Are you ready for this?”
“Listen, if Mag shows any sign of distress, I want you to get us apart, okay?” Jessie nodded and then Danny added, “I’m afraid killin’ her, Jess.”
“Oh, Danny, don’t.”
“Is this what I’m supposed to do? Take everything she’s got to give? What can I give her in return?”
“What Rick Felder never gave her.”
Danny stood for a moment, looking into Jessie’s grey-green eyes. Then he took a step back toward her, and softly kissed her lips.
She smiled and said, “I know.”
When they entered the room, Bill was sitting on the edge of the sofa, holding Mag’s unresponsive right hand. Only she could hear him as he said, “I will, I will. The first sign that he’s in trouble.....I promise."
The easel and stool joined the mirror next to the bed. Then Jessie stepped over to the leather arm chair, while Bill returned to the chair in front of the desk. Danny sat on the stool and composed his image in the full length mirror. Once he was satisfied, he pushed the right side of the drawing board back a few inches on the right, allowing strong sunlight from the front windows to set the stage. In the mirror, everything was reversed and Mag’s face appeared to be at his right shoulder, the paralysis sagging it on the left now. Her right eye was clear and brilliant in the sunlight, her right hand free to dance in graceful gesture across the paper again. If only.
The wheels of the office chair creaked across the carpet and Danny heard Bill’s voice from behind. “Anytime you’re ready. Mag says she’ll follow your lead.”
Danny took a nervous breath and surveyed his image in the mirror. Mentally, he began laying lines over his reflection, planning his approach, searching for a way in, a focal point, a meaning. Without warning, the mirror went white. A single dark line began where the top of his head had been and ran like a rivulet of water down the contour of one side, leveling at the shoulder, then racing down one arm, around the open hand, up along the accordion folds of the sleeve, rapidly tracing the outside edges of the major forms as it leapt to the collar of his shirt. It outlined the neck and jaw, the side of his turned face, then followed his hairline to complete the outer edge of his head. The line vanished then instantly re-appeared at the undrawn shoulder, and dropped to define the arm and hand that held the chalk, each leg, and finally, the boots Danny wore. It was racing around the legs of the stool when Danny slapped a hand over his eyes and said, “Mag, I can’t see when you do that.” The image faded.
Bill cleared his throat. “Mag says she’s sorry. Once she looks at something as a drawing, it just starts to draw itself. You start again and she’ll try something else.”
Danny nodded and returned to the task of layout. Can she really draw that fast? As fast as she can see? He raised his right hand to the paper, more apprehensive than ever -- not ready for what Mag had to teach him. The crayon had barely touched the paper as the clean surface began to pop with all the dark shapes of the composition. Midtones filled in, rapidly building on the dark shades, blocking in the solid masses, identifying the light source, as highlights sizzled into place along the brightly lit edges of the figure. Danny dropped his hand back into his lap as he watched the drawing flash into high contrast before it faded quickly. He shook his head.
Bill was slipping out of his suit jacket. “Mag says that you’re both hearing the same music, you just have to get together on the dance.”
“I can see what you’re doing, Mag,” Danny said, “but there’s no way I can keep up with you. I can’t. Maybe I’m just not ready for this.”
Bill sat back heavily in his chair and slapped his hands down on the arm rests. “Well, we have come too damned far along this road for you to back out now, Junior.” He looked sharply at Mag. “I will not give him a break. Why do you have to do all the work? He’s so fucking intuitive, why can’t he figure this thing out?”
Danny could feel sweat gathering on his forehead and heat rising in his cheeks. Jessie’s face appeared over the edge of the drawing board. The concern in her eyes flickered into unease as she glanced over at Bill. Danny couldn’t bring himself to turn around and face the older man. Instead he looked into the mirror at Mag. The one bright eye of her reflected self was fixed on him as she raised her right hand. Danny watched his reflected self reach out and grasp the paralyzed left hand of the woman lying on the sofa.
Mag’s actual right hand in his left felt warm and firm, and Danny jumped when her fingers curled in a strong, uncompromised grip. He had time to hear Jessie gasp his name and Bill say, “What? You can see?” before he was submerged in a world of lines and hatching.
Jessie saw Danny’s eyes roll back as he closed them and the expression of surprise drained from his face. “Danny!” She reached around the drawing board to grasp his shoulder.
“Wait!” Bill said, holding up a hand to stop her. “Mag says he’s okay.”
Danny’s right hand was drifting up to the paper. He touched the tip of the crayon to the surface, then dropped down a few inches and put in another spot with the conte`. He was going through the motions of layout, leaving a breadcrumb trail of crayon marks to follow around the page in preparation for the work of rendering. His movements were quick and deliberate, his hand floating to just the right place, leaving a small mark, and then floating on.
“See?” Bill’s eyes were wide. “He’s doin’ good. Just leave him alone.”
“Well, he doesn’t look so good to me,” Jessie said. There was heat in her voice.
“Mag needs him!” Bill glared at Jessie, but she didn’t back down.
“Oh, stop it, you two!” Mag’s voice was weakly emphatic, like a shout from a distance. She looked from one to the other of them with fiery rebuke in her green eyes. “Ree-lax. Both of you.” She took a quick breath and as she released it, softened her tone. “Jessie, my dear, Danny is fine. In fact, if you step back just a little, I’ll be able to give him some help, which is, I seem to recall, what we are here for.”
The sound of Mag’s voice struck Jessie like church bells on Sunday morning, calling to her memories, filling in the piece of the picture that had been missing in spite of the mind link between them. All the emotions of Mag’s expansive soul surfaced in the sound of her voice, the voice of the teacher, a voice that carved a niche in the listener’s awareness, a sheltered place for two lives to converge in a shared moment of understanding. To have been her student, Jessie thought, to have carried that voice as inspiration and encouragement. I just found something I didn’t even know I was looking for.
She stepped back behind the drawing board and stood alone in the middle of the room. She could hear the sound of the conte` as Danny swept the stick across the paper, and she could hear the murmur of conversation between husband and wife, and she felt nothing but hopeless desolation. Abandonment. As though she had stepped away from The Moment and now it refused to take her back. She thought about leaving the room and wandered in the direction of the door. As she emerged from behind the mirror, she heard Mag’s voice. “Jessie, don’t go.”
Jessie turned and looked at Mag through the tears in her eyes. “This stinks. Whatever this thing is that brought us together, it got the trajectories right, but the point of intersection is all wrong. I feel like I’m missing more than I’ve been given.”
“Stay and enjoy the time we have. Look how well Danny’s doing.”
At that moment, Danny laughed like a child. An ice cream, Christmas morning, fire cracker hoot. oy and delight. He faced the easel with his eyes lightly closed, his head tilted back as though he was drawing a memory, no longer studying his image in the mirror, not even really looking at the paper in front of him. He seemed to be listening to the music of the lines as they hissed into existence. On the paper, dark eyes burned beneath angled brows. A short, dark thatch of spiky hair became shorter and curlier hair at the temple then descended into a long tapered sideburn, punctuating the lean cheek and pushing forward full lips and a strong, square chin.
His Dudley-Do-Right chin, Jessie called it. The Danny of dark brown conte` emerging on the paper was the one she saw when she loved him most. Danny when he was full of the energy of creation, of making, sometimes when his hands were full of clay or chalk or sometimes when his hands were on her. Joy and delight. She smiled in spite of her saddness and sat down on the arm of the sofa.
Danny continued to draw, building the image from the lightest tones to the darkest. Each line sang its gesture and color, adding another voice to the chorus. Mag’s voice, everything Danny ever heard her say about drawing, swam through his mind, and when the sensei actually joined him, when he felt her presence on the paper, he’d laughed out loud. He placed a line and Mag would be there to carry it through, anticipating his next move, pulling from ahead, gently nudging from behind. Their lines merged, they peeled apart, entwined again, racing like swallows along a riverbank, skimming the surface of the paper, and Danny had laughed with the wonder of it, the exhilaration. Now this is sailin’!
For awhile, the page was their playground, until both recognized the moment when the drawing began to speak for itself. Danny followed Mag’s lead when she broke away to tend to the image by deepening a shadow or reinforcing the strength of a line, but soon he could feel the call of the composition and the path that moved through it. Then Mag fell back, assisting or resting, letting her student choose the way, affirming his choices with her unwavering attention.
Now Danny opened himself to the work. He owned every line on the paper. Each mark existed for a specific purpose, either to represent a feature of the material world or to give voice to the landscape of his inner one. As he continued to work, he added texture to the shadowy background, weighting it, sinking it behind the figure. Then he surfaced to refine the play of light on skin and clothing until his eyes were called to dance along the shimmering trail of highlights that wound through the composition like a thread though a labyrinth. Slowly, the drawing of a young man sitting on a stool became more than a portrait, more than a virtuoso performance by the artist, more than a moment of a life captured in the play of chalk and paper. The drawing became a talisman, a link to the place inside where all of us are one in the desire to create our own lives.
“Drawing has always made the world more real to me.” Mag’s words had never left Danny’s mind. I know, Mag, he tried to tell her. I used to think that being an artist meant I was separate from other people. Now I know that it’s the thing that connects me to everyone else.
Almost a whisper, as though she was speaking close to his ear, Mag’s voice broke into his thoughts. “It’s finished,” she said.
Grey fog began to close in on Danny’s view of the drawing. He tried to back away from it, shutting his eyes against the sudden vertigo. Falling. Gasping for air in the heavy darkness.
“Hang on, Danny,” Jessie said from miles away. “Come on back. E-e-easy.”
“Here.” Bill sounded closer, only a few yards away. “Put him here.”
Danny felt the office chair against his back. The heel of his work boot kicked out a metallic clang as it found the top of one the swivel legs and then slipped off again. I’m sitting. He opened his eyes and relaxed as the room filled with air and the fog lifted away. Jessie stood in front of him, her hands on his shoulders, her eyes searching his for recognition.
“What happened? Did I fall asleep again?”
A laugh from Bill.
. “No, I think you just stood up too quickly,” Jessie said, relief easing into her voice.
“Is Mag alright?”
Jessie stepped to the side so that Danny could see the sofa. Bill was on one knee by the side of it. The paralysis had returned to her right side. Bill applied the broad pad of his thumb to Mag’s cheek, intercepting the path of a tear, and gently wiped the wetness away. In a quiet voice, he said, “Mag’s alright.” Gesturing loosely at the easel, he added, “She says to show Danny the drawing.”
Jessie gripped the easel from behind and turned it to face Danny. The young man in
the drawing looked out at his real-life counterpart like an echo off a canyon wall.
“That’s not me,” Danny said. “That guy looks like he knows what he’s doing.”
“That’s the way Mag sees you.” Bill said. He helped his partner resettle herself against the pillows then stepped away from the sofa.
Mag held out her left hand to Danny and enfolded him in an embrace when he sat by her side. He lightly kissed her forehead. Before he drew away, a flash of light caught him in the eyes. He squinted at what he thought was a sun splash from a passing car, but before he opened his eyes again, he heard the wind whistling past his ears, and rattling the branches of the low bushes at his feet. The first of the day’s light streamed through a gap in the heavy clouds lying folded above the misty hills of a distant horizon. He stood on a cliff, hundreds of feet above the shimmering inlet of the restless sea and the rings of foam that swirled around the dark rocks of the beach below.
A warm hand slipped into his and he turned to find Jessie by his side, the amber sunlight pooling in her grey-green eyes. She smiled and nodded past him, off to his left, to where Mag and Bill stood side by side on the flat rock, where they had always stood. He took a step back, and when he looked up again, Mag and Bill were gone. Now, it was just the two of them on the cliff, facing the wind and the rising sun. The light from it flared and then faded, and Danny was sitting next to Mag again, her bright green eye searching his for recognition.
Danny leaned over and whispered, “I’m already a step ahead of you on that one.” He fished in his shirt pocket and when he pulled his fingers out, there was a fluted gold band on the end of his index. He turned the ring with his thumb until Mag could see the iridescent opal fitted into one curved side of it, the gold seemingly curled back from the ends, as though the elliptical stone had been pressed into soft metal. “Opals are Jessie’s favorite.” He let it slip out of sight again. “I know the guy who made it. It’s one of a kind -- just like her.” He patted his pocket and added, “Sure beats the pants off that Manshroom for Christmas, dunnit?”
* * *
Later in the evening, Bill supported Mag as she hobbled her way to bed. “You must be feeling stronger,” he said brightly. Mag slid her left leg forward and dragged her right leg up to meet it. “We’re just speedin’ along here.” Step and drag, step and drag. “How’s the pain?” he asked, and in response to Mag’s sigh he made a face that was all wince and misery. “I’ll get you a pill when you’re settled in.”
They were nearly through the bedroom door, Mag clinging to Bill with her good arm. “See,” he said, “I got it all ready for you.” The sheet and comforter on Mag’s bed were turned down and a bowl-shaped candle on the dresser flickered softly. “Why not a candle?” Bill asked. “You used to like candles.” Mag stopped shuffling and sniffed. Bill smiled. “Well, it was either Ocean Mist or Magic Meadow, and Magic Meadow made me sneeze.” He sampled the air. “I kinda like this one. Does smell a bit like the ocean.”
Mag released Bill and reached out for the edge of the bed. She leaned there, resting before making the effort of getting herself on top of it. “Here,” Bill said, “let me help you.” And before Mag could protest, he scooped her up and gently set her on the bed. “Oh, hush, woman. If I’d waited until you asked for help, we’d have been standin’ here all night.” He gathered the covers, holding them out of Mag’s way as she worked her uncooperative limbs into position for sleeping. Laying her head on the pillow, she sent a thought to Bill.
“Of course. What would you like?” he said as he drew the covers over Mag’s legs. He was busy for a moment and then stopped abruptly, his eyes meeting Mag’s. You mean, in the bed -- with you?” He considered it. “Well, it’s been a while, but I guess I can still remember how to do that.” He patted down his pockets, as though he’d lost something. “Ah, just let me get your medicine, and a pillow from the den. Be right back.”
Mag relaxed while Bill was gone, distancing herself from the pain lodged in her limbs, the dull ache in her head. The pillow was cool against her cheek. The light of the flame leapt up the bedroom wall. Every moment, she reminded herself. Every moment.
Bill returned. After helping Mag take her medicine, he sat on the edge of the bed and shucked off his boots with a grunt. The dress shirt and pants were less trouble and ended up in a heap by the dresser. In his shorts, socks and tee, Bill slid his legs under the covers. As he lay back, he wrapped one arm around Mag and let her settle her head on his chest. The generous pillows were a comfort to his aching shoulders –- Mag’s body against his was a comfort to his aching heart. She laid her open hand on his chest and he covered its bird-like fragility with his calloused palm, relishing the feeling that he was providing safety and protection. “You just relax and let the medicine work. You’ll be asleep in no time,” he said.
Silence gathered in the room as Bill watched the flame dance above the candle. Its restless brilliance called to him. He smiled in response to a thought from Mag. “Oh, nothin’, really. Just thinkin’ about the studio. Thinkin’ about the glass we're workin' on right now,” he said. “Me ‘n’ the boys have got a good little rhythm goin’ on. They all know what to do and when to do it, and Kyle’s gettin’ to be a real master at the bench. We’re a team. Just the way I like to work.” He listened for a moment. “Well I suppose I could show him around the studio, but Danny doesn’t seem like a glass man to me -- too hesitant.” Bill paused. “Yes, yes, I agree, he does have something. There’s voice in his work.” Bill listened again, longer this time, but he shook his head in disagreement. “The school was going to be ours, Mag. I couldn’t do it without you. And, anyway, that was a long time ago." Firelight and shadow pulsed on the ceiling. "No, there won’t be any school.”
The silence grew and worked its way between them. Bill blinked at the tears gathering in his eyes. He cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose Gary and Sharon were always keen on the idea of a school way back when. Maybe they’d still like to see it happen.” He listened. “Yes, yes, Steve and Fran, too. I know Greg would leave the university. And I think Helen might come on board. Funny thing is, they’re all on their way.”
Mag lifted her head in alarm.
“Don’t worry,” Bill said, soothing her back down, “they won’t all visit at once. Nurse Ratchet will see to that, I’m sure.They just want to see you.” Bill rubbed his thumb across the back of Mag’s hand. "Word about you got around fast. I’ve been busy all week with emails and calls. I don’t think you realize the effect you’ve had on …” His voice hitched on the last few words, and he swallowed whatever else he was going to say. Mag waited. “Anyways,” he said, clearing his throat, “I’ve been in contact with all of your current students, lots of your former students, the Committee, the Commission, the Board and the Association. I even called that nephew of yours, but David said he can’t leave the store during the Christmas shopping season. Too busy.” Bill paused for Mag, then laughed in spite of his tears. “Yeah, you’re probably right. He’ll make it for the funeral. Davey knows what’s important, alright.” The last words bubbled out around a sob. Releasing Mag’s hand, he covered his eyes and wept. The voice of Bill as a child squeaked to the surface. “What’ll I do without you, Mag?”
She offered him a corner of the sheet and he wiped his face. She turned his face toward hers and sent him a thought.
“I don’t think I can do that,” he said, and he looked away. For a moment he stared into the candle flame. Then he looked into her eyes again and said, “Goodbye, Mag. Goodbye, my love.”
* * *
Danny broke apart the frozen snow with the sides of his fists. It fell from the railing in ragged clumps, shattering on the lower rungs and the cement at his feet. Some pieces fell in front of the railing, dissolving without a splash on top of the lake water below. Inside the breakwater of the harbor, the surface was uniformly calm, grey-green, and rippled with glassy reflections of the white sky. With every breath out, Danny added a small, thin cloud to the overcast day. Now his hands were red and raw, and he stuck them up under the arms of his jacket as he rested his elbows on the cleared railing and settled his eyes on the steely line of the horizon. Images filled his mind, images from the past two weeks. Some were wonderful and some were terrible, the theme of his waking life since he’d met Mag.
He’d gone back to her apartment and held her hand on three more occasions after the Sunday night they’d drawn his self-portrait. While free of the effects of the stroke, Mag spent the time drawing, through Danny, and talking with Bill and Jessie. Danny was deaf and blind to the sessions, holding the crayon while Mag spun winsome renderings of sea shells and lace curtains, the sensitive lines curling around the forms and unraveling into the spaces between. With every drawing, Danny soaked up the wisdom that was imparted on the paper, but he also felt cheated that he would never again be stirred by Mag's voice, or drenched in her laughter, or embraced by her unaffected gaze. Someone had sensed his injured feelings, because after Danny took Mag’s hand to start the third session, Bill set up a small video camera to record the entire episode for the four of them to watch afterward.
“You just can’t seem to stay awake,” Bill said into the camera as he gave the idiot Danny at the easel a hard shove that rocked his doll’s head on his shoulders. The three of them talked and laughed while Danny’s puppet-self sat at the easel and drew, lost in the dream world. And finally, the camera was moved in closer to Mag and she spoke solely to Danny, with her whole self, he thought, and he drank in every moment of it.
She thanked him for the chance to finish the drawings she hadn’t begun because she’d been too busy, always promising herself the time, but never finding it. She told him she believed in him, believed he’d find his way. She wished him luck and happiness, and before her voice failed her, she began to say she wished they’d had more time, and then she settled for hugging the arm of his dummy self and laying her cheek against his shoulder. “And if somebody should mention something to you about a school,” she said, while trying to smile through her tears, “well then, you just listen, alright? You just listen and you think about it, for me, Danny, and for yourself, too.’’ Then she managed to smile brightly, and she waved at him, and that was the end of the recording. The screen went blank.
There was silence in the room and then Bill said, “Next time we’ll get her to sing a song or something.” They all laughed.
And now Danny felt like laughing again, even though the cold was biting at the tears in his eyes. Even though there hadn’t been a next time.
Every day after Mag’s return from the hospital there had been people in the hallway outside of her apartment, talking, laughing, hugging, all waiting for their turn to see her, all drawn to the source of their inspiration. Four days ago, when Danny came home from work, the hallway was clear. So, even before he opened his apartment door, he knew something was wrong. Jessie was waiting for him in his living room and when she turned to greet him with her eyes red-rimmed and streaming, he realized that for the past two weeks, he, Danny the Doubter, had been hoping for a miracle.
This morning, in the auditorium, Danny had taken his place beside the Merry Men. They observed a moment of silence before they placed their hands over their hearts and let go an “ALL HAIL MAG!” that left the room ringing with the sound of their voices. Then they lined up behind Danny and Kyle along the rails of the casket, and escorted Mag ‘s body down the long aisle. Bill followed, with Jessie on his arm. They passed row after row of faces drawn in sorrow or consolation, but one near the back stood out from the rest. It was a face so haggard, so devastated by grief that the man was almost unrecognizable. Danny knew him – Rick Felder, who gaped in surprise when their eyes met before he quickly looked away.
“Shame on you,” Danny said now as he stood at the frozen railing, “shame on you for wasting the time you had with her.” Down below, the water threw his image back at him. A grunt of laughter escaped his throat. God, I hope I never have to say that to myself.
“I could see you talking, but I couldn’t hear what you said.” Jessie smiled as she approached on the walkway. She parked herself with a nudge of her shoulder against his arm. “Thought I’d find you here.” When Danny didn’t answer, she said, “Bill’s expecting us at his studio. He’s got some people for us to meet.”
“I know.” Danny gazed out at the steady grey line between the water and the sky. “I just needed to see it.”
Jessie slipped her hand around his arm. The opal on her finger glinted sunlight in spite of the cloudy day. She peered out beyond the breakwater. “You don’t have to see it to know it’s there.”The thought made Danny smile. The smile lifted his heart. His heart and his mind agreed to
always remember what Jessie had just said. He lightly covered her hand with his as he turned from the railing. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s go to Bill’s.”