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Bernice’s New Muse

by Gay M. Walker

Bernice Valley fingered the scarred surface of the desk in front of her, resisting the urge to dig her freshly lacquered nail into its edge. As much as she’d have liked to add her mark to those of her predecessors, she didn’t waste time on trivial pursuits. Instead, she flashed an innocent smile at the young man seated opposite her. A handsome man, if she overlooked the blue polyester suit and owlish glasses, which only a man like Johnny Depp could pull off.

She lowered her voice to a sultry whisper. “I never told anyone my secret. Frankly, it’s rather embarrassing.” She coughed and nodded to the carrier on the chair beside her. “He’s my muse.”

Bernice found herself unable to meet the young man’s inquisitive gaze. She dropped her focus to her feet and wiggled the toes that peeked out from her proper, not-too-bare sandals. A chip in her polish sent a shock of embarrassment through her. How very unlike her! She’d always been a woman who took care to dot every i and cross every t. Why, even her g’s and q’s had perfectly equal loops!

Bernice followed every rule perfectly. She went by the book, right down to the letter. Chapter and verse, that was Bernice. At least until handsome Harvey had come along. Harvey had been a distraction, pure and simple. Because of him, her life was no longer as neat and legible as her handwriting.

The trouble had begun when Harvey enrolled in art class. Collecting art hadn’t been enough, not for Harvey. He wanted to create. When Bernice thought about his Peter Pan smile and the way he looked in his blue jeans, his shirt half-untucked and the buttons half-undone so his muscular chest drew her attention, she still felt a thrill and, she suspected, a dreamy, faraway look came over her face, because her schoolgirl heart (or at least it felt like a schoolgirl heart) pittered and pattered in her chest like those described in every book she’d devoured as a teen.

At least until she remembered Elektra, the life drawing model who had shown Harvey more life after class one day than his instructor had assigned. Hello, Elektra. Good-bye, Harvey. But before Harvey met Elektra, he’d launched Bernice’s career, or more precisely, he’d introduced her to her muse.

Harvey had been proud of his new canvases, oil paints and brushes, and had come to Bernice’s apartment straight away to show them to her. He’d opened a few tubes, showed her how he mixed them, daubed a few brushstrokes on the canvas.

Bernice hadn’t been terribly interested. While Harvey worked at putting color on canvas, she’d run her fingers through his hair, and up and down his back, her breath warm in his ear, intent on putting color in an entirely different location. She’d been the greater artist, she remembered with satisfaction; he’d abandoned his paints beside his easel, forgotten until morning.

She slept deeply afterwards, but she awakened rapidly enough, as did the rest of the building, when he shouted angrily at her the next morning. Harvey, who’d never left Phoenix or studied a foreign language, for that matter, already sounded like an artist after only one class, she thought. He had mastered petulance.

Mon dieu, look what your cat has done! He has ruined my masterpiece!”

Bernice almost giggled. Harvey sounded like a displaced character from a Saturday morning cartoon; at any moment, she expected to hear the voice of Foghorn Leghorn in response. Harvey’s face, however, had been dead serious, so she’d slipped her arms around his waist and into his pajamas. “But surely you can save it?” she whispered. “You’re better than that.”

Sacré Bleu! Non! To do so would be an insult. Me, I take a shower.” He’d then shaken her free and stormed off towards her bathroom.

Once he was out of earshot, Bernice had allowed herself to laugh. Then, she’d stared at the canvas, intrigued. She’d seen an image in the paw prints. Pansies and trees in one area, a face in another. She sat down in front of it, opened a few tubes of paint, mixed the colors as she’d seen Harvey do, and begun to paint.

When he returned from the shower, he sat beside her, his mood improved. “Bernice, darling,” he said softly, his hands encircling her waist. “It’s not me who is the artist. It’s you. You and the blasted cat! Your work puts me in mind of Picasso. Will you let me introduce you to a friend of mine who owns a gallery? Of course, if he takes your work on, as your agent, I will be entitled to thirty percent of...”

Had Harvey stopped there, she could have avoided the trouble. But he hadn’t. Harvey arrived at her apartment the next day, and again the day after that, with more canvases and oils. He’d set them before her and watched her, expectantly. “Paint,” he’d said, as if the mere word could conjure color and creativity. But, of course, it couldn’t.

She’d stared helplessly at the canvas, and seen, well, canvas. Woven threads, warp and woof, coated with whatever it was they coated it with. And she’d seen tubes and jars of paint and a handful of brushes, and sitting next to her, a gorgeous man with eyes the color of jade fixed angrily upon her, insisting that she earn his next meal, or ten meals, and pay his rent.

“I can’t,” she’d cried. “You must either hold me tight and love me, or you must go away.” She prayed he’d hold her tight and love her as he’d done that first night when he brought the paints to her apartment to show to her, but he’d left her alone and gone to his apartment instead. He’d learned to paint Elektra’s curves, both literally and figuratively.

And Bernice had gone to bed alone and cried into her pillow, hands clenched around the nightshirt he’d left behind. One night, after she cried herself out, she’d slept. The next morning, her cat lay curled in a ray of sunshine that poured in through the window, the suggestion of a smile on his face.

The canvas next to him was covered with a swirling pattern of multi-colored paw prints. In them, Bernice saw a bouquet of flowers, a hand reaching, an apology. Her vision reminded her of a childlike version of a Chagall she’d once seen. She grabbed a brush and completed the image, laughing to herself.

Then, still laughing, she packed Harvey’s toothbrush, nightshirt and razor into a bag and parked them outside the door. Laughing louder and harder, she called a locksmith to re-key her apartment, and laughing loudest of all, she visited the artists’ supply store and invested in her own canvases. That night, she set out four canvases side-by-side on a drop cloth and scattered cat treats around them before she retired to dream of rooms full of Harveys worshipping at her feet.

By the end of the week, she had enough canvases to show to a dealer friend of Harvey’s. The dealer’s card had fallen out of Harvey’s wallet, or maybe she’d removed it while he was showering and forgotten to replace it, she couldn’t remember which. The friend was as excited as Harvey had been when he saw her first painting. Her career was launched.

Her life was an instant success. She had gala openings, she was invited to lecture, she had travel opportunities — everything was wonderful. Until. Now. She smiled shyly at the man in the blue suit, her face flushed, and asked him her question. “You do understand, don’t you?”

“That you must work on the road, Miss Valley? Yes. That you must purchase canvases, brushes, oils? Certainly. That you incur a certain number of travel-related expenses in the course of your work? No question. But, Miss Valley, and I do beg your pardon, would it not be possible for your, ahem, muse to do his painting at home? I’m afraid that first class airfare for a cat simply cannot be considered a deductible expense.”

Copyright © 2009 by Gay M. Walker

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