Abe ground out his cigaret on the cold concrete studio floor. He stood up, reached under his denim apron and hitched up his pants. "Look, I can see my goddamned breath. It’s freezing in here. I forget about the cold when I’m working. It’s not like the city up here. In the city, you got boilers that overheat everything. Up here, it’s a puny little propane heater. I can turn up the thermostat, though. You want some more heat? Some more coffee?"
Tom remained still on a creaky wooden chair, with his elbows on the tops of his knees and his head in his hands. He mumbled something.
"I didn’t hear you," said Abe, striking a kitchen match to light the burner beneath the kettle. "Say it again."
Tom Mannheim said, "I don’t know what the fuck to do."
"That’s entirely reasonable," said Abe. "If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t know what the fuck to do, either."
"Did you ever think about leaving Esther?" Tom asked.
Abe bellowed with laughter. He walked back to his dusty, sagging canvas director’s chair. He stopped to pat Tom -- head still in hands -- on the shoulder, and resumed his seat.
"Oh boy, Thomas," Abe said. "You’re really in deep, aren’t you."
"I’m not after her because her father’s a rich collector," Tom said. "That much I’m sure of."
Abe leaned back in his chair. "No, no -- I’m afraid not, Thomas. That’s the one part you’re not sure of. If you’ve got more than a couple of drops of artist’s blood in you, you can’t help seeing an opportunity for your work here. Your heart wants to go for it. You want to get your sculpture shown and collected, you want to get it into the thick heads of the morons who run the art business, and you want to get it in the newspapers. Why? Not because you’re a selfish prick or an egomaniac. No, it’s because you’re a goddamned artist. You want your art -- that stuff you work so hard on every day, that stuff you pour your soul into, that stuff that made your mother cry when you said you were gonna devote your life to it -- to have an effect. An effect: to counteract all that trendy gallery shit that’s made by all those smartass kids with laptops that do everything for them except wipe their pink little asses. You want your work to set things right again. To put a little beauty back into the world. Real beauty, not the idiot masses’ greeting-card kind of beauty. So when you smell an opportunity -- you don’t see it, Thomas, you smell it -- you can’t help yourself."
"I don’t know what’s wrong with me," said Tom. "I’ve got a pretty good life when I look at it. It’s kinda comfortable, in a way."
Abe said, "The trouble with comfort, Thomas, is it ain’t competitive."
Tom looked up, bleary-eyed. "If my thinking I love Helen is just the artist in me smelling an opportunity, and that’s O.K. with you, then why do I have to have a talk with myself?"
"Because that’s the most dangerous possibility," Abe said. "If you love her, you love her, and that’s that. It’s pure -- more or less. Even if it’s mostly the sex. Sex is a kind of love, you know, if you do it right. You’ll either jump right or jump left, but you’ll jump and that’ll be that. You’ll decide either to run off with your sweetheart and endure all the tsuris that follow, or you’ll decide to do the right thing by your wife and kids and put your wandering little pecker back in your pants. You’ll be a little sad for the rest of your life, but what the hell.
"But if what’s really on your mind is stairway to the stars by way of Daddy Artbucks, then your artist’s heart will try to deceive you. It’ll try real hard to make you think you really love her like -- I dunno -- Abelard loved Eloise, or something like that. You’ll run off with your sweetheart and soon you’ll start to push for this little thing and that little thing from her daddy. You’ll think, ’Hey, I left my wife and kids for you; the least you could do is get your father to help me out a little.’ You’ll probably say that to her, too -- maybe not in those exact words, but she’ll get the message. Then she’ll feel betrayed. Your having second thoughts about the wife and kids, maybe even wanting to go back to them, she’d understand. She’s a woman, remember; women understand wives and kids. They all want to be wives and have kids. But she’ll never, ever, understand why you were such a cold-blooded sonofabitch, a real fucking bastard who was only after her father’s clout in the art world. She’ll hate you with a blue flame. She might even try to kill you. I’ve seen it happen."
Tom thought for a moment, then another. "You mind if I light a joint?," he asked Abe. "You’re welcome to hit."
"Smoke ’em if you got ’em, Private" Abe said.
"This is marijuana."
"I know what a joint is, Thomas," Abe said. "Dope-smoking wasn’t invented by hippies in the Sixties, you know. They had that shit back in my day. I smoked my share on Tenth Street."
Tom pulled the little white torpedo from his shirt pocket, and got up. He walked over to the kettle’s burner and picked up a book of matches lying beside it. The joint flared to life. Tom coughed and shook his head from side to side, as if firmly refusing his own offer. The exhalation was heavy and sweet.
"Smells like good stuff," said Abe, taking a sip of coffee.
"Eight hundred an ounce," said Tom, with difficulty. "I can afford only a quarter at a time. But it’s very strong. Two short tokes can get you through a whole Lucy Keller opening. Want some?"
With a closed-mouth smile on his face, Abe laughed gently. "A jolt from the Scotch bottle I keep right next to the chisels every once in a while is enough for me," he said. "That and a nice glass of wine with Esther. She drinks that Froggie red like a fish and I can’t keep up. More drugs than that, along with my heart pills, I don’t need. And are you sure you need it? You know, making such a big decision."
"I’m not making it here tonight," said Tom, mordantly.
"Better sooner than later, and better here than in a big fight at home with your wife, when the kids are watching."
"What you’re forgetting," said Tom, "is that Helen hasn’t said she wants me to go that far."
"No, Thomas, I’m not forgetting anything. I just want you to know that when your wife throws you out, you show up at your little on-the-side sweetie’s place and then she slams the door in your face, too, it’s not going to be my problem. It’ll be your problem."
"Then why do you want me to make a decision here and now?" Tom asked.
Abe spoke angrily. "Goddammit, Thomas, I don’t want anything. You called me up and came over, remember? We were supposed to talk about Howard Edelman, and what I could tell you about dealing with a difficult patron and all that shit. Then you break down, with all your melodrama with this Helen lady, and your wife, and the whole situation. No, I don’t want anything, but I do think you should make up your mind pretty goddamned quick. Otherwise you’re just gonna twist in the wind, dangling from a noose of your own making."
Tom took a second drag and laid the joint carefully down on the floor and stepped precisely on the end of it -- just the glowing ash -- with his workboot heel. He picked up the shortened joint and dropped it back into his shirt pocket. Only then did Tom let the smoke escape from his lungs.
"You know, it doesn’t do any good to hold it in that long," said Abe. "The high comes from the first second or two. All you do by holding it is make yourself cough. My jazz musician friends used to tell me that."
"But you. . . you think that if I’m not really after Helen, down deep, because her father’s a big collector," Tom said, resuming the conversation right where they’d left off, "then I’m not a real artist, right? You think if I really love her, or if I think I love her because the sex is so good, then I’m not a real artist, because a real artist would only love her for what her father could do for his art. Is that it?"
"I wouldn’t put it exactly like that," said Abe. "But you’re fairly close."
"Jesus, what a dark, cynical view of artists," said Tom. "How do you explain you and Esther?"
"Ah, what you don’t know, young Thomas," Abe said. "Do you know how many times I’ve been married?"
"One. Do you know how many times Esther’s been married?"
"C’mon, Abe," Tom said. No."
"Esther’s been down the aisle -- if that’s what you want to call it -- four times," Abe said.
"Jesus Christ," Tom said.
Abe sipped his coffee. "There were two quick marriages early on. They both ended in annulments. The lucky grooms were servicemen. One of ’em was a sailor, the other I don’t know what the hell he was, but he wore some kind of uniform. Esther felt sorry for them, I think. Maybe she thought it was her patriotic duty. Anyway, number three was an older guy, a businessman. He said he’d support her and her art, if she’d just give him a child. They had a daughter, but the baby only lived six months. After the kid died, the marriage ended quickly and quietly. The husband treated Esther nice, gave her a little money, set her up with a studio. Then he said goodbye, and she never heard from him again."
"I had no idea." Tom retrieved the joint from his pocket. He looked at it, then thought better of another toke, and put it back.
"All that happened before Esther was out of her twenties," Abe said. She married me when she was thirty-two. We’ve been together ever since -- forty. . . ah, I can’t remember exactly. Forty years and change."
"During all the time, did you ever think of leaving her?" Tom asked again.
"For crissake, Thomas. The answer is no."
"Did you ever cheat on her?"
"Probably," Abe said.
"What do you mean, ’probably’?" Tom asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, ’probably.’ It’s been a long time, it’s hard to remember," Abe said. "I’m not a perfect man, and I had my opportunities. Back when I was teaching, in the ’70s, especially. Those little cookies didn’t wear brassieres. They didn’t wear much of anything. And they were all willing to fuck at the drop of a hat. At the end of one night sculpture class, one of ’em came right up to me and said, ’You wanna come back to my apartment, smoke some weed, and fool around?’ It was like that back then. So maybe I went back to her place, maybe I didn’t. The truth is, if I did something like that, it was only a coupla times, and mostly ’cause I was flattered. It didn’t mean much, if it meant anything at all. I mean, look how I can’t really remember, Thomas. But I sure as shit didn’t go falling in love, that’s for sure."
"Did Esther know?" Tom asked.
"If -- and I repeat, if, Thomas -- there was something to know about, I don’t know whether Esther knew about it or not. If there was something to know about, and if Esther knew about it, I don’t think she gave much of a shit. And she was -- she would’ve been -- right. Look at where I am. I’ve spent half my life with the woman, and I’m nothing but goddamned glad I did."
Tom retrieved the joint again. He didn’t pause to look at it this time, just lighted it. "Man, is this fucked!" he said bitterly, to the floor. Then he walked into the bathroom, and didn’t bother to close the door.
Abe heard cursing and the sound of pissing. Then a thump and Tom shouting, "Shit! Fucking shit!"
"You never win when you kick a toilet!" Abe yelled.
Tom came out, zipping up his fly and saying, "Edelman is weaseling out because the stupid bastard wants to get married again. Tony Givens called to tell me he’s losing enrollment all over the place, so I might get both classes at the Academy pulled out from under me. . . ."
"Never trust a Limey," Abe interrupted.
"Same difference," Abe said. "They both bow down to a frumpy queen. We don’t do that in America, remember?"
"And I’ve. . ."
"Fallen in love," Abe said, without looking at Tom.
Tom said nothing. With one long drag, he sucked the joint into near-oblivion, right to his fingernails.
"Nice custom bodywork," he said, looking at a crease in the right rear quarter-panel.
"Lay off, Jimmy," Tom said, slamming the driver’s door. "I’m in no fucking mood." He stepped around the car to look at the damage with Jimmy.
Jimmy said, "I smell chronic on your breath. You didn’t get high and give your car a boo-boo, did you?"
"No, no," Tom answered. Then he shouted, "Fuck!"
Jimmy folded his arms across his chest and said nothing. He was wearing only a T-shirt and the night was bitter cold, getting colder. Jimmy started shivering, but he made no move toward the studio. Tom, he knew, needed to say something.
"Every fucking thing I touch turns to shit, Jimmy," Tom said. "Yeah, I had a coupla tokes. But this goddamned dent [he kicked it lightly with his foot] got done to me while I was inside Abe Koenig’s studio, talking to him. The car was on the goddamned street in Nyack, and some asshole did this and drove off. Man, I can’t win for losing. Howard, Tony Givens. . . Shit, you don’t want to hear about it. I can’t. . ."
"Sharon came by the studio about an hour and a quarter ago," Jimmy said abruptly. "She was looking for you. Said she couldn’t get you on the cell, and then she saw it sitting on the workbench, and blew up at me for not answering it. She said I was probably covering for you while you were out with some bitch."
"Oh, Christ," Tom said.
"I told her the phone was on vibrate and that I was working very hard on your sculpture with a grinder," Jimmy said. "I couldn’t have heard the roof caving in. She wouldn’t believe me, though. She said if you came back tonight -- she was very, very emphatic about that ’tonight’ part -- that I should tell you, and I quote, to wipe the lipstick off your dick and give her a call at home. One of your daughters is sick. A high fever, your wife said. The doctor was there, at your loft, with the kid."
"Do you know how Sharon got here?" Tom asked.
"Big ol’ limo, baby," Jimmy said. "I saw it myself. Maybe she’s trying to break the bank to get even with you."
"Anybody with her?"
"I just peeked from the street door. I didn’t get too close, but I think there was another woman in the back seat. The windows were tinted, except in the front, where the driver was sitting."
"Hilda Roeninger. Damn!" Tom said.
"Were you out cattin’ around, Thomas?" Jimmy asked.
"Don’t call me fucking ’Thomas’ right now, please don’t!" Tom said. "And no, I wasn’t out with any woman. I was at ugly ol’ Abe Koenig’s studio, talking some business."
"My, yes, I certainly believe you weren’t sexin’ it up with ol’ Mister Koenig," said Jimmy. "Even I wouldn’t want to get in that man’s pants, and my standards, as we all know, are very flexible."
Tom looked up at the sky. His baseball cap fell to the sidewalk behind him, but he made no move to pick it up.
"I get nailed for being with another woman when I’m only talking to Abe Koenig," Tom said. "I get a little stoned, but drive very carefully, only to have a big ding show up from when the car was parked, standing fucking still. I work my ass off on the greatest piece of sculpture of my life, and first David waffles and weasels and then Howard wants to bail. I cave in to Sharon and go sucking up to Tony Givens for a couple of classes, and then he tells me enrollment is slipping too much to be able to give them to me. Tell me, Jimmy, is there anything else I can do wrong just by doing nothing wrong?"
"If you don’t go right inside and call about your daughter," Jimmy said. "I’ll probably be able to think of something."
Tom bolted for the studio door, leaving Jimmy, with his teeth chattering, standing by the wounded Audi. He picked up Tom’s cap and walked slowly after him.
Tom said he would, right after he finished putting away his tools at the studio. Then he called Helen at home to say that he was about to make a big decision. For God’s sake, Helen answered, don’t do anything stupid, or sudden. Come see me, she said, before you do anything at all. Tom said he would think it all over by himself, make his decision by himself, and then tell her. After he hung up, Helen told herself there was no way she could really be in love with such an impetuous man. Tom felt an inkling of the equivalent, on his side. But he was so angry, sad, anxious, frustrated and self-pitying that the warning never reached the conscious part of his mind.
PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.