The Private Collection

Joanna Pearson Click to read more...

Joanna Pearson’s short stories are forthcoming in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, and Kenyon Review online.  She is also the author of a book of poetry, Oldest Mortal Myth, winner of the 2012 Donald Justice Prize and the 2014 Towson University Prize for Literature. She is also the author of a young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills.

There are stories Marvin likes to tell now that he is rich.  When you have everything, sometimes you like to remind people you once had nothing.  He believes, maybe, that this imparts a lesson of some sort, to his graduate students in particular. I, too, was once a creature of hunger.  You would not know it from the house he shares with Lucinda, its stunning view of the ocean, the chef’s kitchen and marble staircase.  So much open space and clean light.  It all tastes of success.  He and Lucinda keep their walls bare.  A matter of deliberate preference.  His own art is secreted away in his studio, selling for god-knows-what now, but plenty—figures that, when mentioned directly, almost embarrass him. What’s true is that he does not have to teach these occasional graduate seminars; it’s a matter of principle.

Near the end of each semester, he invites his grad students over for a long, wine-soaked dinner on the back terrace.  He is generous now that he can afford to be.  Lucinda, too, is a gracious host, rising on her soft, bare feet to fill everyone’s glasses with wine and replenish the plates of charcuterie and cheeses.  She is beautiful even now, while he is proud, leonine.

After the sun sets and everyone’s eyes have softened with red wine, he tells stories, some of his early days as an artist.  Every so often, he tells the one story.  It’s a story that Lucinda has heard many times before, a story that makes her mouth tighten, one she’d prefer he not tell.  It is a story he knows holds something within it, although what that is, he cannot discern.  For years, the wisdom within the story has remained, despite his retelling, opaque.

During Marvin’s final semester of art school, things were not going well.  He was nervous and bug-eyed, overeager, and his professors did not particularly like him.  He had just broken up with a girl named Melanie, and now he seemed to run into her everywhere.  Melanie was beautiful and wild.  She’d been the first in her family to go to college, on a music scholarship.  After the breakup, Marvin had heard that Melanie was no longer going to class, no longer showing up to rehearsal, using pills, vomiting up her food.  When he saw her these days, she was busking: a beautiful, bedraggled girl, rawboned and rank, playing her viola on the street.  Like a fallen character in an opera.  When Marvin saw Melanie and her viola, he’d turn the other way.  The sight shamed him.   Yet who can help falling out of love?  Or never having loved to start with? It was not his fault, of course, not entirely—but still he understood he was meant to take the blame.

It was time for the senior exit show, and now, without Melanie, Marvin had no guests to invite.  His parents were far away in Minnesota, practical people, disinterested in the manner in which he’d chosen to waste his education.  He had a few friends, but it seemed an act of self-indulgence to request their presence.  So he invited no one, awaiting the art show with a sense of resignation, the way one might anticipate a dental procedure.

That night, he wore a white button-front shirt with a blue tie his father had bought him.  He wet a comb and tried to press down his cowlick.  In the mirror, he gazed back at himself: blinking and idiotic, a farmboy parading in his father’s clothes.

When he arrived at the arts center, he headed straight for a small table set up with refreshments and grabbed a plastic cup of red wine.  His work was at the farthest corner of the space, a position that he understood meant he was out of favor with his professors.  Marvin’s preoccupation at the time was the human form, and so his work was filled with naked bodies: bodies strewn against other naked bodies.  Landscapes and seas of naked bodies.  Naked bodies arranged in such a way that they become almost abstracted, lines and hillocks of flesh.  He never had a shortage of volunteers.  College students, young and nubile and firm, were never shy about signing up for group nudity, particularly if he provided complimentary beer.  They posed en masse, uninhibited for Marvin, heedless of how briefly perfect they all were.

So Marvin stationed himself in front of his wall of naked bodies with a cup of wine.  (Now he would tell his students that, in retrospect, his work was really not bad—visually arresting, if a little naive.  These early works of his were highly coveted now, praised for their formal inventiveness.)  Parents and friends of his classmates wandered through, many of them making their way down to his end of the room for a cursory look.  Polite.  He shook hands perfunctorily with an associate dean.  A French professor praised his work sincerely.  Most of the time, however, Marvin stood there, awkward in his name tag, watching the passersby mill about, forgetful of him.

The show was almost over when the man in the Hawaiian shirt entered the building.  He was loud.  His booming voice and laughter cut to Marvin at the far end of the room.  He had a bushy, yellowish-white beard and wore a jaunty driver’s cap and blue shirt exploding with floral print.  He was in a wheelchair, and he moved through the room in it like it was a sedan and he was royalty.

“Stunning, stunning!” the man announced to no one in particular as he passed a piece by one of Marvin’s classmates.

Now the room was at attention.  This man, oblivious of the respectful hush everyone else seemed to honor, was moving through the room making pronouncements as if he were a visiting dignitary, some of them no more than a “Hmm” or a dismissive shake of his head.  Marvin felt himself, his classmates, all tilt toward this strange man like young stalks toward sunlight.  They yearned for it—his approval, his critique—just as they’d been trained.  Marvin wondered if the man was a critic, a collector, some sort of arbiter of taste.  Maybe a gallerist one of the professors had invited?  Collectors, gallerists—they too were allowed to be eccentrics.

The man in his wheelchair moved with an entourage now.  People unconsciously clustered behind him, waiting to see what pieces he found to be of interest.  The man helped himself to two quick swigs of wine and a handful of cheese sticks, proclaiming them, “Delightful!”  And then, he was approaching Marvin.

“My word!” the man bellowed.  He swept one thick hand forward as if to touch one of Marvin’s pieces.  Marvin blushed and stuttered, stepping to the side.  The room was quiet now, awaiting the judgment of the man in the Hawaiian shirt.

“Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm,”  he said, nodding to each of Marvin’s pieces individually, as if making their acquaintance.  “You, sir.  You, young man.  This is your work?”

Marvin’s throat was dry.  He’d gone red in the face, sweating, preemptively tasting humiliation.

“Yessir,”  he managed to whisper.

“Captivating!” the man bellowed.  “Allow me to shake your hand.  I’m a collector, see.  Always on the lookout for new talent.  And this, my god, this!”  The man threw his hands up.  He spoke in the vaguely Transatlantic way of old movie actors, and his handshake was sticky and over-firm.  Marvin wanted to wipe his hand off afterward but didn’t dare.

Now Marvin’s classmates were clustered around, actual envy on their faces.  Marvin could barely think.  He was accustomed to being overlooked, or, when acknowledged, treated as a mild social irritant.

“Here,”  the man said.  “My card.  I’d like you to see my private collection. We can discuss your work.  Friday at seven?”

Marvin could do nothing at that moment but nod, dumbstruck, grateful.

*************

These days, Marvin can tally all his regrets because there are so few: the time he shoved a cousin and broke his collar bone, an early painting he sold for $100 that went on to be worth millions, the woman he treated badly before he met Lucinda.  And perhaps the man in the Hawaiian shirt.  Although how could he have possibly known?  Then again, how could he not have known?

What he did know as he drove was that he was in the bad part of town.  Sad, slumping houses with No Trespassing signs, skinny dogs tied to stakes.  The college town they lived in was pleasant and medium-sized, but in its outstretches lived the real locals.  Townies.  People who often were employed by the university in some custodial capacity.  Groundskeepers, cafeteria workers, janitors.  This was where, Marvin knew, Melanie’s friends drove out to buy drugs—dumb drugs for dumb college kids—pot mostly, occasional benzos.

It did not, in short, look like a neighborhood where an art collector or tastemaker of any sort would live.

Marvin felt silly now, the collar of his shirt scratching him at the neck.  He’d dressed up, the way his mother would have expected him to dress for a church supper.   He wore imbecilic loafers.  He’d borrowed his roommate’s car and nestled his portfolio (in the sleek leather case that Melanie had bought for him before their breakup) on the seat beside him like a passenger.

When he pulled up to the address on the card, his sense of misgiving only deepened.  The house was small, shabby, with a weedy yard.  A full garbage bag was propped next to a rake on the front porch.  The air smelled of trash and soot, like someone had been burning things—not the good, clean smell of burning leaves but a toxic smell, gasoline and charred plastic and diapers.

He should have left then, but it would have seemed a waste, a failure.  He would have been embarrassed to have returned to his roommates so soon.  And there were his nagging Midwestern manners.   If one accepted an invitation, one showed up.  Besides, he still had the tiniest lingering hope that this man, despite all appearances, was somehow legitimate.

When he knocked on the door, he heard the man’s voice from within.

“Come in, come in!”

Marvin entered, clutching his portfolio like a shield. The house was cluttered and dark and narrow.

“Welcome! I’m preparing something delectable, my good fellow,” the man continued, and Marvin turned a corner, entering the kitchen.  “A delicious repast.”

The man was stirring something in a pot.  Marvin was surprised he could navigate the tight space in his wheelchair.  A strong odor of beef and onions rose and mingled with other smells, smells of sweat and unwashed human crevices.  Junk obstructed the hallways, old boxes and trinkets piled in odd towers.  A hoarder, Marvin thought.  He’d been invited into the home of a hoarder.

“Thank you for having me, Mr. Heggerty,”  Marvin said, remembering the man’s name from his card.

“Hans,”  the man said, ladling grim brownish stew into two bowls.  “Call me Hans, please.  Marvin.”  He handed Marvin the two bowls and gestured for him to follow.

Hans moved through his claustrophobic house with impressive ease.  Marvin was vaguely disoriented as he followed through the dim hall.  He led them to the back of the house and out through a glass door onto a small deck.  Being outside again was a relief.  Marvin sank gratefully into a deck chair.

“Bon appetit.”

“Oh, no, thank you. Getting over a stomach bug,”  Marvin blushed as he said it, wondering if he’d offended Hans, who merely nodded, spooning himself up a large bite.

They sat in silence for a few moments while Hans ate.  When he’d eaten most of his stew, he set his bowl down and leaned back in his wheelchair, stretching.

“Now,”  he said.  “We talk.” He tilted his head toward Marvin, and reflexively, Marvin leaned in closer, like a co-conspirator.

“I’m not really an art collector.  At least, not in the sense I implied.  I do collect art.  I have a real interest in it.  But unfortunately, with my financial situation, I’m not in a position to acquire more at present.”

He paused, stroking his beard before continuing.

“What I’d like to offer you is an opportunity.  I’d like to invite you to take part in an art project.  A project of the body.  My body.”

Hans looked at Marvin intently, and then lifted his shirt.

“Behold.”

His sagging abdomen bore raw pinkish scars like seams.  Baggies and tubes of greenish fluid and brown water seemed to extrude, as if his internal organs were leaking out.   A few strips of gauze were stuck to his chest, seeping clearish pink fluid.  There was a sweetish odor, like rot.  Later, when Marvin had grown older and dealt with the decline of both his parents, he would realize that what he was probably looking at were surgical drains and ostomy bags, but at the time, he could not comprehend what he saw.  He only knew it meant sickness, something foul.

“I’m dying,” Hans announced, rather cheerfully, smoothing his shirt back down over his big belly.  “I’d like to invite you to do a series of portraits of my body as I die.  A death sequence.”

Marvin coughed, nodding slowly.  As if to give him time to consider, Hans retrieved his bowl and spooned up another bite of stew.  The beard around his mouth was stained reddish.

“Wow,” Marvin said slowly.   “I don’t know how to respond.”  He was aware of how inane he sounded.  The idea was appalling.  The idea was also the sort that could make a person’s reputation.

“Oh, indeed.”  Hans spoke with relish.  “Imagine how much interest you’ll generate. Particularly after I’m gone.  And I’ll spare you no details—you’ll have it all, blood, shit, and viscera.”

“Thank you.” Marvin did not know what else to say.  He wished very much that he had a glass of water, something to wet his lips with, but he didn’t trust the crusted dishes he’d seen piled up in Hans’s kitchen.

Hans laughed now, slapping his knees like he’d just remembered the most hilarious joke.

“It’s the natural progression, really.  I’ve seen your work—all those kids, splayed out, naked as they day they were born.  A body dying. It’s the obvious next step.”

Marvin nodded.  He could smell the meaty stew on Hans’s breath.  Something churned inside him, and he felt the urge to be sick.

“Do you have a bathroom I could use?”

Hans shrugged.  There was a long moment during which he did not answer, and Marvin thought he sensed a shift, a wariness.  But when Hans responded, his voice was genteel, jolly as ever.

“But of course.  Down the hall to the end, on the right.”

Marvin likes to pause here.  It’s a good moment to refresh his drink, which he does, plunking in two ice cubes, just how he prefers.  Lucinda is semi recumbent on the chaise lounger, smiling at him wearily but patiently.  The grad students are abuzz, refilling their plates with second slices of the apricot tarte Lucinda has magicked from somewhere.  Everyone is a little bit drunk.  He grabs Lucinda’s lovely ankle, proprietary, benevolent, and presses his thumb into her instep, massaging it.

“I’d definitely say yes to something like that,”  one of the grad students says.  “How could you not?”

“You did it, didn’t you, Marvin?”  another asks.  “Surely you did it.”

They speak to one another as colleagues.  He insists on it, although the students are often shy at first.  But by the evening of this dinner, they have usually found their ease.

He shrugs, taking a sip of his drink.  All this, all that surrounds him, it is his.  He looks out to a set of distant red lights blinking from the ocean. The story isn’t finished yet.

Marvin slid open the glass door and stepped into the cloying darkness of the man’s house to find the bathroom.  He immediately ran into a chair, tipping it over. A woman’s brown wig landed on his feet.  He shuddered, moving gingerly through that hallway and its towers of knick-knacks and old appliances, the sag-bellied mattresses propped against the walls.  There seemed to be no windows anywhere, giving the house the cramped gloom of a cavern.  A few wobbly antique lamps cast dim circles of light here and there.

As his eyes adjusted, Marvin could see now that hanging all along the walls were photographs: bodies, black and brown and white, young and old, men and women.  Children.   There was something wrong with these photos.  Marvin wondered what it was that was so unsettling about the faces in them, and then he realized:  they were dead.  The photos were post-mortem.  These were cadavers, the images mortuarial.  Marvin knew this with a sinking certitude.

And there, at the end of the hallway stood a kind of altar.  There was no other word for it.  An old dresser was covered in little candles and photos. Marvin lifted a photo, and his breath caught.  He felt a rush of familiarity.  He picked up another photo, and another.  The photos on the dresser were posed nudes, of living people—people he knew, or at least had seen around town.  Familiar faces to anyone who went to the university: the man who begged for money outside the movie theater, the girl with her scruffy dog who was always camped out at the park, the one-armed veteran who drank endless cups of coffee at the diner.  There they were, supine or standing, naked and defiant-eyed.

And there was Melanie: naked, sitting cross-legged, holding her viola in her lap.

Marvin’s hands shook as he put the photo down.

He’d left the house after that, never even making it to the bathroom.  He’d left Hans all alone on his deck, wondering what became of him.  This is how the story always ends.

*************

Is there a moral to this story?  After all these years, Marvin does not know, but it is a story he still tells, over and over again.  And it’s a story to which the grad students respond with a kind of recognition.  Maybe they are thinking, there are risks one must take for art, or watch out for people promising too much, or we all make difficult decisions as creators. Every time, though, at least one grad student will remain undeterred.

Tonight, it is the quiet, skinny one with the blondish beard who says it.

“I would have said yes anyway.”

And Marvin understands that, whatever the point is, this student has missed it—all the terrible awkwardness and foreboding of the situation.  This student is not an artist but a carrion bird.  Or, maybe not a carrion bird, but a hero.

Marvin is no longer certain he can tell the difference.

Lucinda does not like to hear this story at all.

“I feel sorry for him,” she says afterwards, placing a pile of dishes into the sink.  “A dying man.  He couldn’t help that he was strange.  Perverted, maybe.  It’s still sad.”

Marvin nods.  How else can he describe the experience?  Being young and stepping into the maw of something, something inevitable, too soon.  The rot of the man’s house, its underworld quality—it has lingered with him.

He is famous now, but not for his figurative work.  He abandoned nudes not long after this meeting with Hans.  His work became abstract, magnificent, broad swaths of color and shape.

There is one detail he has never included in the story.  Neither with his students nor Lucinda.  One part he’s kept only to himself:

He did not immediately leave Hans’s house after encountering the weird altar and all those photos.

He’d realized he’d left his portfolio out on the deck.   He couldn’t leave it.

He’d walked back to the deck to get it.

And there, he saw Hans sprawled on his back like an upended tortoise.  He’d slipped out of his wheelchair, Marvin understood, reaching for something.  His drink had tipped over, and the glass lay shattered on the deck.  He was attempting to maneuver himself with one arm back into his wheelchair.

He was weeping.

It was a horrible sight.  Grotesque.  A red-faced old man, hideous in his very helplessness.  Hans shirt had fallen back once again, revealing the grayish yellow bruising on his belly, the baggie of brown fluid, the tubing flecked with blood.

“Help me,”  Hans muttered.  “Help.”

Gone were his plummy vowels, gone the accent that hinted he was landed gentry.

“Don’t leave me,” Hans whispered, hand outstretched.  “Please.”

Marvin stood there, hesitating only a moment.

“You’re just like me,”  Hans muttered.

And Marvin had grabbed his portfolio and walked away.  No.  Truthfully, he’d run.

For years, even as Marvin has accumulated the world that is now his, gleaming and bright and spare, he has worried about this man Hans’s words, rattling in his head like an old curse.  It is only now, as he enters his late seventies, with his new high-tech hip and the scar on his chest from the two stents, that he thinks what the man had offered him was really more of a dark riddle.

This is what he thinks tonight at least, the muddy moon low over the ocean outside their bay windows, waves breaking into froth on the beach below, and Lucinda sleeping, fragrant and oblivious beside him.  He will rise from his bed and pace, grateful that the walls are high and bare.

He does not know it yet, but tonight is the last night Lucinda will be present for one of these gatherings.  Tonight is the last time he will feel a need to tell this story.  A black thread is already tugging, but neither of them could possibly know.

And for now, it does not matter.  Lucinda is there, present as ever, sleeping with her long, perfect limbs askew, as elegant as if he’d posed her.  She appears so young to him still, especially at rest.  Marvin will brush a strand of hair from her forehead before stepping out to their back terrace.

He will stand there with a drink in his hand, breathing.

He is grateful for the repetition of the ocean, its waves bashing, obliterating themselves again and again, then re-forming.  Above the man-made lights, infinite stars sparkle in secret above him.

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