"Interior with View of the Ocean"
"Interior with View of the Ocean" by Richard Diebenkorn
The painting that inspired the story is the property of The Phillips Collection.
Story published by Inversion Magazine, Summer 2005
At first, he hardly ever thought about leaving home. Working out of the apartment he shared with his wife, Helen, had made him unaware of his own feelings, deaf to the voice of his own flesh. The older he became the more he took it for granted, his unfailing ability to work, as though the spirit and pride of his father were in him, forever urging him on. In the long unveiling of his life, from delivering milk in frigid wind with his father in Maine to purchasing and critiquing modern art, Gerald Krauss finally had the kind of success he’d always known he could reach. He’d never considered giving all that up until now.
Gerald had been lucky, and he knew it. Throughout his career, he’d reveled in his good fortune and grinned with pride at his special gift of sight that he believed museum curators and gallery directors didn’t have. He’d fooled them all, pulling himself up the social ladder by his wits. He came to art criticism by chance as a college student in the late 1950s on a trip to Paris. There he walked the narrow medieval streets of the Marais district with the artists, the bohemians and the long-settled immigrants. He and his buddy cleaved their way into Florence Honigsblum’s bar night after night, bodies pressed close to move beyond the glossy red door, to marvel at the artistic rivalries of the day played out in shouts and gestures.
Gerald was hooked.
A few years later, as his career was beginning, he met Helen in New York and married her at St. Peter’s with two friends as witnesses. After Helen gave up dancing, they took trips together and eventually decided to live on the Gulf Coast. Once on a visit to New Orleans, they wandered the dusty, ornate streets of the French Quarter and came upon an antique shop, well lit and smelling fresh of cedar and wood polish. Arranged in the shop were old chests of drawers, an eight-foot tall armoire, baby cradles, high-back chairs with Louis IV style upholstery and upstairs, a huge brass bed, glowing gold and orange.
The store owner said, “That frame came to us from a turn-of-the-century whorehouse. Now it’s Claude’s place over on Rampart Street. Nothing but gumbo and guitars now.”
Helen was delighted, and they bought the bed and came together in the middle of it, day or night, whenever the urge swept over them.
There wasn’t a great deal Gerald explicitly asked of her besides her presence at art openings and private parties. She gave herself completely to this role, having dreamt of it as a girl playing barefoot around the untamed lakes and rivers of Louisiana. Though not a great conversationalist—sometimes her half English, half Cajun choice of words confused people—she moved with the elegance of an aristocrat and could dance like other ladies of distinction, their bodies like ballerina dolls on the ends of sticks and their once pursed lips opening wide in laughter. It thrilled her husband to watch her. She molded his public image to counter-balance the sad hang of his long face, and he obliged her, letting her choose the right clothes, shoes, food, wine and home. To his secret delight, she never lost her country girl innocence.
As the Red River flooded the Mississippi up north, they watched the river crest at Baton Rouge and sighed with relief when it stopped. Gerald and Helen bought a home on the top floor of a nineteenth-century building in a shaded city square common to cities along the gulf coast. The rear, however, was remarkable for its view of sky and sea. Pale blue met blue-green flashing motion to the South and two thin strips of green trees and one strip of gray road lay to the East. The ceilings were high, and the windows glass giants in each room. They allowed light to flush the home with sunlight most of the day, to fold into rooms at dawn and to peel away at dusk.
The light began to affect his way of writing. Early in his career, when some new thought gripped his heart, he went to a niche in the living room, his office, to write it down on a loose sheet of paper or in the margins of a torn out magazine page. He could gather the scraps into a pile and, pulling out one at a time, write something that satisfied him, something cohesive and clear from fleeting ideas. But as his prestige grew, so did the demand for his work by glossy art magazines and art openings, and he forced himself to sit in his chair and write for eight, ten hours a day. Food and drink appeared at his side as he worked, but he couldn’t recall how. He spoke on the phone to his agent, never still, doodling on a newspaper or tapping on his knee.
With each new publication, his anxiety grew and barely into his sixtieth year as he was pushing through at his desk, confusion descended on him like a kind of numbness, tingling and fracturing thoughts in his head. He stared out the window for hours that seemed like minutes, and minutes that seemed like hours. Helen drifted in and out of his view throughout the day and when the gulf waters darkened he knew the end of another idle workday was near.
Helen noticed his growing nervousness and eccentricities, and it seemed no matter how carefully she expressed herself, her every word produced, to her great disappointment, an irritated or pained look from her husband. She’d become a caretaker, no longer a wife and a lover, the exuberance of their past wiped away a little more with each failed attempt to explain to him how she felt.
For all his self-absorption, he sensed her concern and blithely told her not to worry, he was just fine and that they would maintain their social standing and quality of life, if he had anything to say about it.
He took to taking walks at all hours. Long, meandering walks in obscure places—unkempt cemeteries and wild, overgrown parks. Helen worried about him when he went out alone. The times when she could no longer bear the waiting she panicked and ventured out after dark to find him. Sometimes she had to fetch him from a local café. At other times, she was too tired to go looking for him and went to bed instead.
But he always returned home to her. He’d slip soundlessly under the covers, look at his wife’s shape out of reach at the far end of the bed as though she were at the far edge of the earth, then turn away and fall into safe sleep.
Not until during lunch one day did he grasp what her concerns had meant. Helen entered the room with a tray as Gerald was at his desk talking on the telephone. She had opened the nearest window for fresh air and was pulling the curtain closed when Gerald snapped his fingers at her and shook his head. In her profile, he saw something so briefly, he wondered whether he’d seen it at all. He no longer saw the joy of a wife apparently content and younger than he, but the bitter, withering glance of a mature woman too old to care. If he wouldn’t admit he’d changed, then perhaps he’d never seek help from her or anyone. He would never get well, and their marriage, their love, would be over. All her life invested in him, a big gamble made on faith and love, in the end, would have been worthless, a sad waste of a life.
She leaned over to kiss his cheek and mouthed the words, “What?”
He hung up the phone, imagining whatever had upset her had passed, and dragged the table closer for her to sit near him.
The living room was bright, and the walls, painted years earlier, had the appearance of cracked eggshells. Gerald tried never to be there during the brightest hours of the day because his confusion was strongest at that time, but today it’d been unavoidable. The light cut swaths through the living room in large triangles and formed interior shapes of intense greens, yellows, and purples, varied cut out pieces of slanted light on the table, on the floor, and through the slats of ladder back chairs. When he had to be home, when he had to finish his work at the desk and couldn’t work at a table on the balcony because of a southerly wind, he situated himself in front of a giant window, nearly blinding his grey eyes in the sunlight so as not to see the angled light and how it changed his home into something unrecognizable. He’d tried working at night, but was unable to accomplish anything, going through the motions or falling asleep where he sat instead.
Gerald slouched in his chair.
“I’ve brought your lunch,” she said. “You look exhausted. You slept in the chair, again, last night.”
“I wasn’t asleep,” he said. He rubbed his eyes and put on his glasses, which hung around his neck. “I was resting. If you get enough rest, you don’t need to sleep.”
“I see,” she said. She laughed quietly to herself, her back to him. She handed him a glass of iced tea. “Maybe I should try that.”
“It may not work for you,” he said. When he drank, the tea was so cold it pinched his forehead and made him more aware of his fatigue and his aching neck.
“After my father got caught in an electrical storm, he stopped needing sleep. I think he passed it on to me.”
“I know.” She smiled and spread a napkin in his lap.
He looked at her and softened. “Thanks,” he said. “What’s for lunch?”
She pulled a chair to the side table and sat opposite him. “Salmon with asparagus and toast. I made a chocolate pie for dessert, too.”
“This isn’t the kind of fish with mercury in it, is it? Knowing it’s contaminated would take all the joy out of it for me.”
“I was careful to ask for the uncontaminated kind,” she said.
They ate together, and a breeze was blowing through the window, cooling them in the hot room. He was looking out the window and shading his eyes with his hand. She looked at his face, searching for the right words, but looked away and surveyed the room instead.
To counteract the confusion, Gerald’s private demon, the life of their large apartment’s interior had become a monastic one—stark, as Helen put it, or classic and simple, as he put it. They had all they needed and what they had was good—six Frank Lloyd Wright chairs, a large oak table, a computer—he only used it for e-mail and had begun asking Helen to type his handwritten work, which he preferred to write spontaneously, authentically—and a work desk next to the matching chair where he sat. The bedroom contained the old brass bed, two dressers, enough clothes for a week of any season, two seasons, actually—hot and hotter—and silver and porcelain place settings for themselves and two guests, when they had guests. That was it. That was enough. He could only be in one house at a time and in one chair at a time or wear one set of clothes at a time until they were all dirty, but that was not his concern for Helen took care of the wash.
He saw there was something she wanted to say and to forestall it asked, “You made all this by yourself? You must’ve gone to a lot of trouble. But wasn’t there a girl helping us with the cooking and cleaning? I remember seeing a red-haired girl. What was her name?”
“Odette,” she said. “She was helping me while I was volunteering at the community center. I had to let her go before the fund drive was over because she was allergic to asparagus.”
He considered this. “Allergic.”
“I like to make fresh asparagus when it’s in season because it’s your favorite,” she said.
“Mrs. Combray’s been giving us a batch from her garden every few days, and I had the girl steam it, only she puffed up like a balloon. I had to send her away.”
“I hope you gave her some sort of severance pay.”
“Good,” he said, nodding. “Still, I don’t want you doing everything by yourself. You cannot take care of the house and do your charity work, too. We’ll have to hire someone else.”
“I don’t need any help, darling.”
“I want you to have some help,” he said. “If it’s money you’re worried about, you needn’t be concerned.” He placed his elbow on the armrest and leaned on his hand, tapping his cheek with his fingertips. “What about that Ducray girl? The big one, named something like ta-dum-dum.”
“That’s the one,” he said. “She’s still in school and could probably use the money. I saw her just the other day on one of my walks.”
“It’s not necessary,” Helen said.
Ignoring her words, he pressed on. “I know she’d do it because I did a blurb on her Cousin Ella’s work. I think she’d feel she owes me a favor, though I don’t think that way.”
“Honey, Alicia Ducray moved to Royale three months ago,” she said softly. “Don’t you remember? She’s married and has a child, now.”
He sank back in the chair. His face flushed as if it had just been slapped. He swallowed hard, unfolded the day-old newspaper and pretended to read.
“I’m sorry,” he said from behind the paper.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I understand.”
He looked at her over a folded leaf of paper. His blush deepened. “What exactly do you understand?”
“That you were trying to help,” she explained.
“So it’s come to this,” he said. “You’ve got me all figured out.”
He saw that she was looking at his face in shock, her mouth slightly open and her eyes wide.
“No,” she said. “But I can tell something is upsetting you.” She said these words carefully.
“Upset is the wrong word.”
She reached across the table to touch his hand, but couldn’t quite reach his fingers. He relented to her silent request and moved his hand forward to hers.
“I want you to see a doctor. Once that’s done, I want you to come with me to my mother’s house for a few days. It would do us good to get away,” she said.
The heat from her hand and the urgency in her voice drowned the meaning of her words, and Gerald recoiled.
She was still leaning forward, looking at his face. “I need to see my maman. I want you to come with me. It may help you decide what you want to do. She might be able to help you.”
“I’ll think about it, Helen,” he said.
He rose, found his keys and went out the front door.
She wondered how long he’d stay away this time.
The next week he went to see a doctor. Gerald gritted his teeth and submitted to a series of tests, all of which ruled out schizophrenia and epilepsy. As the doctor flipped casually through the chart, Gerald’s frustration spiked, his head to toes pulsating to the beat of his heart.
The doctor said, “It could be migraines. They can come with visual auras. I’ll write you out a prescription. Dementia is also a possibility. I can refer you to a specialist.” He paused then. “You might just be depressed. Have you considered that?”
Instead of considering it, Gerald followed a maze of hallways to the exit, got in his car and drove to a park where he spent the afternoon watching treetops move in the wind. That distance between his fractured life at home and the real world outside widened still more. As long as his life opened each day, he would cling stubbornly to his routine.
After a two-week wait, he went to see an ophthalmologist, who ran his own tests.
“Don’t think about it. Focus on something else and it will pass,” the doctor said when Gerald told him about the things he sees during his episodes. “None of it is real. It’s your mind playing tricks on you.”
Slipping into psychosis was not how he’d envisioned leaving this world. When Gerald told him about the visions and pain in his eyes during the episodes, the baby-faced kid in a lab coat said, “No amount of thinking about it will change the fact that your eyes are fine. Those organs in your head that transform light, shape and color into electrical impulses are completely normal.” But who could ignore the cracked eggshell walls of his bedroom or the intense colors of geometrical shapes in the living room or at nighttime the bright daggers of light from the dimmest lamp bulb? “Maybe you should move,” the doctor said and smiled that stupid clown-faced smile of his.
The waiter led Gerald to his usual table—outside on the patio under the blue canopies with a backdrop of the Louisiana sky and lush overgrowth of globular trees, Spanish moss threading down through the branches. A jazz rhapsody abruptly came from small outdoor speakers. The volume was lowered.
He was the only one sitting outside in the heaving heat. His linen shorts and buttoned shirt were sagging over his knobby shoulders and hips, and his favorite walking shoes—old, thick-soled oxfords—were damp and stretched out of shape. He cared little about his appearance anymore and to justify it decided that to others he appeared unremarkable, so unremarkable as to become part of the background wherever he was, like a moving stroke of color in a still-life painting or perhaps an Impressionist seascape.
Though he still preferred viewing modern art, which he’d been critiquing for 30 years, he didn’t want to be like modern art. He attributed this to his humility. It had become for him an obtrusive form, all those flat shapes, linear designs, and, even more disturbing, arbitrary and luminous colors. An intense Matisse could be as lyrical as an Avery, yet he failed to see this anymore. Whereas in his youth his mind had grasped similarities in the most divergent aesthetics, he now felt confused and unimpressed.
He removed his white hat. Lifting a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his face beneath his eyeglasses, along his tanned brow and in the dip above his lip where sweat pooled. He no longer liked the heat, the kind of heat that gave him the chance to study his own frailty. The heavy dampness was tolerable enough for the sake of being outdoors, though. He leaned back in the cushioned chair and removed his straw hat.
The waiter brought a glass of ice water and another of Chardonnay and a large midday meal on a three-tiered tray—a green salad on top, mussels in wine sauce with lemon on the middle tier, and a small mound of plain rigatoni on the bottom.
While eating, he distracted himself from his own thoughts by watching passersby and eavesdropping on their conversations, which rose and fell in a leisurely rhythm keeping time with their steps. After sitting in the same spot every day, he’d come to feel part of them and their lives, to know them so well he could fill in the unheard spaces to pass the time.
The waiter brought a slice of lemon meringue pie, and Gerald ate slowly and listened to the voices of people going by. The pinching, dry wine taste on his tongue, a slight gulf breeze, damp skin recording the sensuousness of it all, would carry him through until the next day.
He reluctantly rose to go home. In the end, he always had to go back home to that room and Helen’s sad questioning.
Gerald searched his pockets for loose bills as a tip. He turned his head toward the creaking, wrought iron gate of the seating area. A man approached him.
“Gerry? Well, how are you?”
“Tommy. This is a surprise. When did you get in town?”
The man ducked his head under the canopy and pulled a chair away from the table to sit. He paused a moment to breathe and hung an arm over the back of another chair.
He waved Gerald back into his chair.
“I’m in the area for a few days representing some buyers and thought I’d look in on you. Helen said I’d find you here. You still like the action of the streets, don’t you?” He said this more like a statement than a question.
“You’ve been talking to my wife.” Gerald waited. He could rest his eyes on someone until the person squirmed and said more than intended. He liked to use this technique with people in authority.
The man patted the sweat on his face with a napkin. “I wanted to talk to you about your trip to Washington next month.”
Gerald didn’t like the sound of that and turned his gaze to the sky.
“Are you going to eat the rest of your pie?”
Still looking away, Gerald shook his head. The man reached for a leftover slice of lemon meringue pie. When he finished, he mashed the remaining butter crust crumbs with a fork and ate them, too.
He said, “It’s a hassle flying these days, and the summer months in Washington are brutal. Do you really feel up to making the trip?”
Gerald gave no indication he’d heard the question, made no attempt to take the bait for he loathed pretense and could sense it a mile away.
“How long have we known each other? Six, maybe seven years?” The man laughed. “I can still remember the first review you wrote of the Hartley exhibit. It was great.”
Listening and motionless, Gerald was looking at the man now.
“I was in town and thought I should talk to you face to face because we’re friends. Mr. Behmand, director of the Centaur Museum in Georgetown—you remember him?”
“I know many,” Gerald said defensively for he couldn’t recall this one and signaled the waiter for more ice water.
“His museum is one of several you’re to see in the coming months.”
The waiter brought the water, and Gerald took a drink.
The man continued, “He doesn’t want any bad press because it’s a new collection and he wants to attract donors. He knows we’re old friends and asked me to smooth things over with you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The man hesitated. “You’ve been uninvited.”
In the outdoor light, Gerald felt changed, for the first time like a tired old man, his entire body collapsing in on itself and into the chair. He looked around without seeing. He was in his thoughts and thinking, the fierceness of this business. We take beauty and turn it into a savage circus. I’ve done this. My whole life has produced this.
“How long has it been since you’ve gone to an opening or seen some new work? Jesus, you haven’t written anything in at least four months.”
“Don’t curse at me, Thomas,” Gerald said, rubbing his temples, the pleasure of the day seeping away from him now.
“Your last pieces needed work.”
“They were fine.”
“Too critical,” the man said. Gerald raised his eyebrows. The man continued, “Saying an artist’s work is no better than horse pucks is childish, Gerry.”
Gerald laughed. “They took that part out, though, didn’t they?” he said. “I remember that one. I could tell what kind of a painter he was just by looking at the edges of his paintings. No continuity. His work made no sense.”
“It’s your job to interpret it for people.”
“If I can’t do it, how are they going to do it? I owe it to them to be honest and spare them the frustration,” Gerald said. He saw himself as a man of the people. “Listen to me, Tommy. Art is about birth and death and lust and beauty. Contrary to popular belief, too little art measures up to this standard anymore.”
The man shook his head in disbelief. “Your criticism,” he began then stopped himself. He leaned across the table and said soft and low, “You don’t make any sense. It’s affecting people. You’ve got to learn to go with the flow. You can’t just say whatever you think, anymore.”
He sat back and paused only long enough to drink the ice water in Gerald’s glass then rose to leave.
“Maybe you and Helen should take a vacation together, take a break. You’ve been at this gig a long time. You might even like it so much you decide to stop permanently.”
Gerald thought of Helen. She’d suggested the same thing earlier, but in a kindlier way.
Thunder growled, a rainstorm began. The café filled with people rushing under the canopy to wait out the squall. Gerald could barely hear the man speaking over the noise of falling rain and voices of others who’d taken cover nearby. The conversation ended in polite neutrality; no promises from either side. The man left as the rain began to let up.
The signal changed to green, and Helen fell in with the collective stroll across the street, stepping lightly over puddles. She stopped in front of the café entrance and stood staring through the window. Not seeing her husband, she resumed her walk to the edge of the building and turned left. Her skirt fluttered at her heels with each step. Wisps of her hair, white and brown, had fallen out of her barrette and floated around her face. She saw Gerald leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, an empty glass in his hand. She opened the gate and eased herself into the chair across from him.
“I want you to come home with me now,” Helen said.
Gerald opened his eyes and looked at her. The dinner hour had arrived, and the waiter came and asked if they wanted to eat or drink. Helen said no, they’d soon be leaving. The waiter said they could stay as long as they wanted. Helen smiled at him and nodded, and the waiter left.
Gerald had taken no notice. He was turning his hands over and examining them, thinking of what to say.
“Tommy was here,” he said.
Gerald lifted a hand out to his side and shifted in his chair, suddenly animated and pleased. “There’s a breeze. Can you feel it?”
“It’s cooler at home.”
“We can have a drink and sit a while.” Gerald paused. His eyes wandered around the café and rested on a seated couple, a man speaking and his laughing companion. “It’s been some time since we’ve been out together,” he said still gazing at them.
Helen nodded. “Come with me.”
“Please,” he said. “Really I can’t. Not yet.”
“Come with me,” she repeated.
They stood, and she picked up his hat and placed it on his head. On her tiptoes, she placed her hands on his shoulders and kissed his mouth, and he kissed her back. She led him by the hand through the gate. Twilight sifted softly on the horizon as they headed home beneath threads of Spanish moss around a bend of sweet hyacinth blooms.