The painting was a big abstract in the colors of a long-ago war. Jungle shadows dripped malarial green, spattered with red specks as small as insect bites and big as bullet wounds. Vaporous clouds imploded like gasps for breath. Hector found it disturbing, but he was pretty sure it was good.
Hector’s wife Lorna was the one who really knew about art. They’d come over from Seattle to spend a few days on Fox Island, helping their friend Ani sort through the hundreds of works left behind by the painter, Ross Telemann. Stacks of pictures leaned against the walls in every room of the artist’s small house and studio, unused since his death three months before.
Ani propped the abstract on a paint-flecked easel they’d set up in the living room. “This one’s called ‘Two Klicks from the LZ,’” she said, reading the painter’s pencil scrawl from the back of the canvas.
Lorna spanned it with her tape measure. “Thirty-six by forty-eight inches,” she said. “Oil on canvas. No signature, no date that I can see.”
Hector tapped the information into a spread sheet on his laptop. The three of them were developing a rhythm, measuring and describing each piece, then recording it with a photograph. An important Seattle gallery was dangling the prospect of a retrospective show, if they could come up with enough of Ross’s best work to justify it. Ani hoped it would be his legacy. Outside, a soft but steady April rain darkened the sky, forcing them to turn on all the lights, even in the middle of the day.
“What does that mean, two klicks?” Lorna asked.
When Ani didn’t respond, Hector said “It’s kilometers, two kilometers from the landing zone, where the choppers would come in. Would this be something he saw when he was on patrol?”
“I don’t know,” Ani said. “He didn’t like to talk about the Viet Nam paintings.” She knelt in front of the canvas and took a photo with her Nikon. “You know he killed somebody over there, right?” She frowned at the camera screen, then shifted the painting slightly to eliminate some glare from the ceiling light. “Whenever I see one of these, I get the feeling he’s in there, that person Ross killed. I just can’t find him.”
The paintings were Ani’s now, bequeathed to her along with the house, because she was the one who’d loved him best. They hadn’t lived together since the 80s, but Ani had remained Ross’s friend and champion, standing up for him against venal gallery owners, the IRS, and the VA medical system. She’d been his constant visitor at the hospice in the weeks before he died.
“A lot of this is stuff I haven’t seen before,” Ani said. “He never showed me much of his later work.” She knelt again, took another photo and glowered at the screen.
“Problem with the lighting?” Lorna asked.
“No.” Ani put the camera down. “It’s me—or it’s Ross. He’s holding out on me.” She took the painting down and stacked it with the ones they had already reviewed. “I used to ask him why he didn’t paint something true about Viet Nam—not just the fucking scenery. He owed himself an explanation for how the war screwed him up.” She rubbed her hands, as if they’d been soiled by some jungle muck from the painting. “He owed me an explanation.” Outside, a gust of wind spattered rain against the windows. “If he left me that, I want to see it. I don’t care about this goddamned house.”
Hector looked around the room, mentally assessing what it would take to get the house ready to sell. He was a financial planner, and he knew Ani desperately needed whatever money the place would bring. It would take a hell of a good cleaning and a paint job, for starters. Hector’s mother had been a cleaner in a motel, and she’d taught him how to look for grime. Everything Ross touched—doorknobs, light switches, the backs of his chairs and the handle of his cane—was smeared and fingerprinted with paint.
Ani and Lorna drifted into the kitchen to refill their coffees and launch into yet another discussion about which paintings to review next. Hector picked one of Ross’s sketchbooks off a stack on the sofa and began to leaf through it. Dozens of pen-and-ink drawings of birds, crows and jays, hurriedly scratched out to capture their shifting silhouettes. Paging further, he came upon some figure studies of Ani, some nude, some partly clothed, some rendered quickly, like the birds, others painstakingly precise.
The sketches felt so intimate and erotic that Hector glanced toward the kitchen, uneasy that the women might see what he was looking at. In some of the drawings, Ani—a young, nubile Ani—was wearing baggy black pajama bottoms. In others, she wore just the top. Her skin was left almost completely white, un-shaded, while the inky fabric spread and pooled around her. Nearly all the sketches had her on the floor, sprawled, sometimes splayed or crumpled as if she’d fallen.
Hector had seen nudes of Ani before. That morning, in fact, they’d catalogued a big painting that showed her completely naked, sitting on a tall stool with her legs apart. She’d been a young dancer then, just at the start of a long career with companies around the Pacific Northwest. She looked straight out of the painting, unsmiling, chin thrust out. It could be said that the model was “looking back at the viewer,” but Hector had the distinct impression that she was looking at the artist, sizing him up. Her torso was half-turned, and Ross had captured the ripple of her belly muscles under the skin. The painting was striking but not arousing. It didn’t make Hector uncomfortable, the way the sketches did, as if he were seeing something he shouldn’t.
“What are you looking at?” Ani had come up behind him, holding out a mug of coffee. “Oh, he kept those?” Her mouth tightened. “I should’ve known. He kept every damn thing he ever drew.” When Lorna and Hector volunteered to help with the cataloguing, Ani had warned them, “I don’t know what you’ll see. Maybe stuff you won’t like. It’s Ross’s whole life in there. Some of mine, too.”
Lorna came over for a look at the sketches. “Oh, honey. I never saw these. When did he draw them?”
Ani shrugged. “Eighties. Eighty-five maybe?” She flipped the stiff pages. The poses contorted that limber body, convulsed her into unnatural angles. “This was just before we broke up. He was drunk or smoking dope all day. Everything he did was obsessive.” She ran a fingernail around the outline of the black pajamas. “You know what these are, right? The black clothes? That’s what the Viet Cong wore.”
She scrunched on the sofa between them, propping herself on her elbows over the sketchbook. Hector saw the pattern of gray as it spread through her short-cropped hair, silvery where it edged her forehead, darkening to black at the crown. She was a good-looking woman still, with a prominent nose and chin, a bow curve to her lips, something a little cruel. Her given name, the name she used as a dancer, was Anoush, Armenian for sweet. “I hated Ross when we were doing these. I thought it was some kind of home-made porn for him, the way he’d bully me until I gave him exactly what he wanted.” She flipped over another page, so recklessly that Hector feared she’d tear it. “He didn’t care if a pose hurt, he’d try to make me hold it.” She turned to Lorna. “That’s when you told me to get out, remember? It was like he was trying to recreate something in his mind that the human body wasn’t meant to do.” She looked up at Hector, but turned away when she saw his embarrassment. “It wasn’t about sex. He never wanted sex afterward. He was just taking it out on me.”
Lorna laid a hand on Ani’s forearm.
“Taking what out?” Hector asked.
The sketch on the page showed young Ani, lying on her side, the black pajama pants pulled down to her knees, the shirt hiked up so it obscured the lower half of her face. She had a dancer’s boney chest and small, boyish nipples. Her hair was long then, but it was pulled into a tight bun. “I don’t know,” she said. “Everything. He was taking out his anger about everything—the war, Viet Nam, his legs.” She turned to Hector. “He wasn’t like when you knew him, not the sweetie everybody remembers. He still had pain from all the screws and metal when they put his legs back together. He had a lot of stuff he wouldn’t talk about, couldn’t even paint.”
She stood up, restless, took the hand that Lorna placed on her arm and clutched it for just a second. Hector usually admired the easy way the two old friends touched each other, but this time, he saw Lorna wince.
The next three canvases they catalogued were jungle abstracts like the first, glints of gun metal overgrown with camouflage, pierced with caustic sunlight like jabs from a bayonet. Hector thought Lorna handled these with more respect than she’d shown for many of Ross’s paintings. Lorna was an artist herself, a noted printmaker and teacher, and she’d known Ross for nearly as long as Ani had. She and Ani had been friends since middle school and roommates after college, braided into each other’s lives ever since. Ani brought Ross into the mix when they were in their late twenties. Much later, when they were on the verge of middle age, Lorna brought Hector. Even now, when they were all learning to be old, Hector felt like a newcomer.
“What do you think so far?” he asked Lorna. “Is there a market for these?”
She hesitated, measuring her words in front of Ani. “The technique is great. Ross was a good painter.”
“But?” Ani said. “You’re sounding like a teacher now, tossing out a little praise before you fling the shit.”
Lorna shrugged. “A lot of it’s dated. There’s not much demand for psychedelic nudes with the heads of mythic beasts.”
“That was his early work,” Ani said. “That’s what got him noticed. He had a lot of shows back then. The critics liked it.” She waved at the stacks of canvases, “And look—his vision evolved. He kept up with the times.”
Lorna let the steel ribbon slither back into her tape measure. “Yeah, he did. Every wave that came along, he waded into it. A little Pop Art, a little Conceptualism—a lot of stuff he did reminded me of other artists.”
Ani straightened and took a step back. “You know what? I’ve heard so much of this critical crap over the years—’Telemann never lived up to his early promise,’ ‘his work was derivative’—blah, blah, blah. Most of those assholes never saw his later work. He got so he didn’t care if anyone saw it.” She folded her arms across her chest, cradling each elbow. “He was good,” she said in a smaller voice. “He had it in him. That’s why I tried to stay his friend, because I knew he had it in him.”
Lorna touched her shoulder. “You stayed because you loved him.”
Ani’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Yeah, I did. So don’t tell me I wasted my life on somebody who was a hack.”
Hector pushed the sketchbook aside. He liked opera, and Ani reminded him of Tosca: “I lived for my art. I lived for love.” Not for health insurance, not for her 401(k), not for anything like a sensible retirement. Now, a few years shy of Medicare, Ani had some internal pain that she was afraid to get diagnosed, because she couldn’t afford treatment. At various times, at Lorna’s urging, Hector had tried to steer Ani into some plan that would provide her with more security. Preoccupied with Ross’s illness, she’d seemed incapable of focusing on her own future.
“Not a hack,” Lorna was saying. “Ross was not a hack. And I’ve never seen the later work either, but what I know, and what I’m seeing here…. There’s not a lot of heart in it.”
“Not even the Viet Nam paintings?” Hector said. “You look at those and it’s like you’re in mud up to your knees.”
“Sure.” Lorna pushed her glasses to the top of her head. “Vivid as hell, but he never followed through, He showed what things looked like but not how they felt. He never confronted whatever pain that experience held for him. That’s the job of the artist, and he didn’t do it.” She picked at the surface of Ross’s coffee table, which was ringed with multi-colored drips from paint cans. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, Ani. What do you do with a guy’s lifetime output, when some of it’s good and most is just…skillful?”
“How about you just wait?” Ani said. “How about you just look at what’s here and keep an open mind, and then you tell me whether it’s good.” She pulled out another canvas. It showed a dim institutional hallway, empty except for a distant figure skimming a buffing machine over the polished linoleum floor. “Look at this—brilliant, huh? The artist’s VA Hospital period. How can you say he never confronted the stuff that hurt him?”
They slammed through another dozen paintings, Ani slapping each one on the easel like a gauntlet, daring Lorna to say anything negative. Doubt and disappointment shadowed her face when Lorna kept silent. It was as if Ani could only convince herself of Ross’s genius when she was actively defending him against criticism.
They were moving so fast that Hector had to ask for a pause so he could catch up with the information on his spread sheet. Ani slumped onto the couch. “You know what’s awful?” she said, “Ross got through almost his whole time in Nam without having to kill anybody. He was just a few weeks shy of coming home when it happened.”
Lorna seemed to know about this, but it was new to Hector. The Ross he’d known was so mellow it seemed impossible that he could hurt anyone. But that’s what soldiers did, right? Hector had gotten his draft notice around the same time as Ross, but he’d avoided combat in Viet Nam by joining the Navy Reserve. He thought the war was wrong, but didn’t have the conviction to be a conscientious objector. “So how did it happen?”
“Ross was in this squad,” Ani said, “reconnaissance. They’d go out on patrols, maybe eight or ten guys, and Ross was the BAR man.”
“Browning Automatic Rifle,” Hector put in. At least he knew that much.
“Yeah, like a machine gun, I guess, but heavier than the regular guns, plus you had to carry ammunition, so they’d give them to the bigger guys on the team. Anyway, Ross carried this thing and he fired it sometimes, but as far as he knew, he never hit anybody.” Ani’s hand went to her throat, as if she were forcing herself to swallow. “I mean, he saw people get killed, a lot of them, but that was mostly from air strikes. Bad enough to give him fucking nightmares, but he never actually killed them himself.”
“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?” Lorna said. “If you’re fighting and people get killed, isn’t it the same as if you killed them?”
“I don’t know,” Ani said. She shifted and hugged her knees. “I guess by the time Ross was in the shit, it was too late to think about that. Anyway, they got caught in an ambush, getting shot at by Viet Cong. Ross saw this black shape moving in the trees, and he fired at it.” She mimed shooting from the hip. “After the shooting stopped, a couple of his guys went over and looked at the person he shot, and it was this Viet Cong, and he was dead. Ross never saw the body himself. He couldn’t make himself go over there and look, and his friends understood that.”
“I wouldn’t be able to look,” Lorna said. “You’d never get that image out of your mind.”
Ani nodded. “I guess. He never said, and I didn’t understand until just this year, after he stopped his cancer treatment. That’s when he told me.” She drew a long breath. “A few days after that patrol, they were in a bar in Saigon, and a bunch of them were drunk. Ross’s buddy told him the person he shot was a kid, just a boy. He said the kid’s intestines were coming out.” She fidgeted with the hem of her tee shirt, wrapping it around her fist. “I wish we’d brought something to drink. Tomorrow we should bring wine.”
Before they went back to work, Ani poked among the stacks of paintings that remained, tilting back the canvases and trying see what was there. Most of the paintings were big, on heavy stretchers that Ross made himself on a table saw in the garage. Ani could only tip back a few of them before the whole stack got too heavy to move. “What are you looking for, exactly?” Lorna asked. “You think he ever tried to paint that scene?”
“Maybe,” Ani said. “That was after I left. You know what a mess he was. He went through a couple more girlfriends, wrecked his truck, tore up a studio, got arrested. That’s when I helped him check himself into the VA psych ward.” She let the stack of paintings rattle back against the wall. “I didn’t know what they’d do to him.”
“Electroshock,” Lorna told Hector. “He agreed to shock treatments.” She looked over at Ani. “It worked, too. He said it worked. He said it took the edge off.”
“Yeah,” Ani said. “It took the edge off his life.”
* * *
That afternoon, they catalogued a series of big, showy flower paintings that Hector thought were quite beautiful, though he could see that Lorna wasn’t much interested in them. He wouldn’t have minded having one. It seemed likely that Ani would offer them at least one painting as thanks for their help, but it wasn’t clear whether she’d let them choose. Right now, it seemed she couldn’t let any of it go.
“The one thing that Ross never wrecked or gave away, even back then, was his art,” she said. “If it didn’t sell, he kept it, which is why there’s so much here.”
“It’s what they call ‘collection of the artist,’” Lorna said, “what you can’t sell and can’t bear to give away.”
They started on the paintings in the second bedroom, most of them from the ‘90s. The images were well-composed, well-painted, lit with vivid colors, but even Hector could see that most were only slightly better than what you might see in a hotel lobby or a fern bar. Lorna got fed up with the relentless ordinariness of the work. “As far as I’m concerned, these could all go away. I’m tired of looking at this crap.” She jerked the latest canvas off the easel and practically threw it onto the stack against the wall.
“What are you doing?” Ani snapped. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I’m doing it for you, not Ross.” Then, as Lorna always did in squabbles with Hector, she dug in deeper. “Look, I’m sorry, but this is nowhere near what Ross could do at his best. It’s mediocre. If I were you and I was trying to protect Ross’s legacy, I wouldn’t let anybody see this stuff. It’s probably why he never tried very hard to sell it.”
Ani turned and Hector could see the same dynamic that Ross had captured in that early nude, the muscular twist of her torso, gathering force. “He was a real artist,” she said. “Maybe not everything he did was great, but every painting was him trying to figure things out. I’m not going to dump on anything he did, and you shouldn’t either.” She planted her feet wide. “No need to be jealous.”
“Jealous!” Lorna stepped back, steadying herself against the stack of paintings. Her face flickered with the beginnings of a dangerous response, sarcasm or scorn, but she seemed to think better of it. “Okay—jealous. Maybe, yeah, I was jealous of the way he could churn stuff out, but that’s not how you make good art. That’s how you keep yourself occupied, so busy you don’t have time to think. It’s another way to self-medicate.”
Unsure where all this was going, Hector edged away from their quarrel and wandered back into Ross’s bedroom. There’d been fewer canvases stored there, probably because the painter had to have some space for personal needs, a chair to pile his clothes on, a night stand for his glasses and his medications. The striking thing was how impersonal it was, just another extension of the studio. The room had a musty smell, a bachelor sourness of unchanged bedding and uneasy sleep.
Hector ran a finger over the dust on the bureau. He pulled out a drawer stuffed with ragged boxer shorts. He knelt and peered under the bed. His mother, the motel maid, had taught him to look obsessively under every bed before checking out. “You’d be amazed what people leave behind.” Under Ross’s bed was a wire coat hanger, a gray wool sock and a big painting, covered with a frayed bedsheet. Hector had to tilt the canvas to slide it past the legs of the bed frame. He hoisted the painting against his chest and walked it into the living room, scattering fluffs of dust. Ani and Lorna dropped their argument and turned to look.
The painting was nearly life-size, too big for the easel. Hector propped it against the wall. The cover tore as he pulled it away.
Ani gasped. She paced toward the image, her back straight. Raised herself on her toes to put her face on a level with his. A look of recognition came into her eyes, as if she were meeting Ross again, unexpectedly, after a decades-long absence.
The self-portrait showed the artist as a much older man than he’d been at the time of his death. He was naked, sitting on a tall stool before his easel, his old man’s doughy belly sagging under the white hair on his chest. An arid scar furrowed one leg from the calf to mid-thigh. He looked like one of those holy ancients painted by Caravaggio, a Saint Jerome, with his ruddy, weathered face and pale body. Ani skimmed the painted cheek with her fingertips, “Why did you give yourself all these wrinkles? Like you could paint yourself some extra life?”
On the floor, under the old man’s callused heel, lay a heavy rifle with a web sling. Scattered next to it were crumpled ribbons—his Viet Nam medals, green and white, red stripes on yellow, his purple heart. His right hand held his brush. On the easel before him was an unfinished painting. It showed a pale form, the delicate body of a boy, half stripped of its black pajamas, a spatter of blood-red, purple, and gray erupting from its belly.
* * *
A few days later, the three of them burned the lesser paintings in the fire pit behind Ross’s house. Oil paintings on canvas burn shockingly fast. The oil ignites first, uncurling ribbons of sooty smoke. Pigments luminesce. The weave of the fabric glows red, frays into fragments as fine as gauze, whitens to ash. The dry stretchers flare like kindling and char into embers.
They fed the canvases in slowly, patiently, one or two at a time, so as not to produce too much smoke and alarm the neighbors. They’d settled on keeping nineteen pieces of Ross Telemann’s very best work, his legacy, enough for a comprehensive show if they could convince the gallery.
Ross’s self-portrait, Ani decided, would be the centerpiece of that show, though she wouldn’t offer it for sale. “I don’t know where I’ll keep it,” she said. “I couldn’t live with him every day on my wall, even if I had room for him.”
In dealing with the lesser work, Ani was the boldest. Having seen Ross’s best, she now threw quite unobjectionable paintings into the fire with no hesitation, no regret. Despite the colors, the composition, the sureness of the brushwork. Despite the careful renderings of shadow and of light. In the end, she let them burn.
Corey Flintoff is a former foreign correspondent for NPR. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train and other journals. He lives in Maryland with his wife, the painter Diana Derby.