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The Artist

by Yelena Litinskaya

Open the Russian original

part 1 of 2

He used to come to the library every day and would stay all day, the first one to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave at closing. He would come to my desk to ask for art journals and books.

Hundreds of people pass before my frequently weary and indifferent eyes. They all ask me for something — each in his own way — they all want or demand something of me. Some are polite, some not so polite, and some are offensively rude, because that’s the way they were made or simply because they are in a bad mood that day.

He asked for things as if begging a great favor, with excessive politeness, even humility, making me wonder if I could ever have the heart to refuse him. And he always thanked me, over and over again, excessively, and even with some hint of self-abasement. This was something I had not yet encountered.

There was something unusual, unnatural about his behavior that made him stand out. As a rule I do not pay a great deal of attention to the faces of the “petitioners” who come to my desk. I don’t have time for it, and, to tell the truth, lack the desire. I have become a bit jaded after working here for a quarter of a century. But with him, I suddenly found myself not only wanting to pay attention, but actually to study him, so as to divine the nature of this unusual man, this uncommon phenomenon.

He was quite short and very fat, virtually spherical. It was difficult to tell how old he was. His face was smooth, completely devoid of wrinkles, but the gray in his long shoulder-length, bluish black hair seemed to indicate that he was on the far side of 40. (Although, it is true some people do begin to go gray at 30.) His eyes were dark and almond-shaped and his nose was broad and straight. There was not a hint of a beard on his shiny, rosy cheeks.

His teeth were white, as was his smile, which was warm and slightly shy, not the pasted-on kind that can be drawn over the face like a curtain. He smiled with his whole essence, his whole being, as if he were announcing “This is who I am, all of me, right before your eyes. Take me or leave me.”

I wanted to believe in the warmth and genuineness of his smile, but my natural skepticism and caution prevailed and I decided that I would not single him out for attention but would watch and wait in order to see what there was to see. Luckily, I had plenty of time for observation, since he came to the library every day, as if he worked here.

He went by the undistinguished name of Tom. Tom usually sat himself down at a table in some corner, leafed through the art books, and copied the portraits by the old masters in pencil.

His copies were virtually photographic in the best sense of this word. He clearly had talent and was a master copyist. It is not given to everyone to have the daring and audacity to be a creator. Tom, undoubtedly, was too timid to call attention to himself by creating something new, and instead made copies of other artists’ works, brilliant copies, a kind of cloning. His strength lay in the accuracy of the reproductions; this was his element. You recognized the hand of a master who had put in years and years of intensive work and study.

He dressed very simply and identically no matter what the season, in light-weight, voluminous pants, a T-shirt and an open windbreaker. Perhaps, aware of what a ridiculous figure he cut, he was trying not to attract attention to himself with his clothes. However, his “costume” bespoke unconcealed poverty and tolerance of cold.

If you didn’t know that his name was Tom, you might have suspected that he was really a woman, a transvestite. But his voice was clearly masculine, a pleasant, soft tenor. For some time I concerned myself with trying to determine Tom’s precise sexual status, but when I got to know him better and became accustomed to his unusual appearance, this question became meaningless to me. To me Tom was simply Tom, a person without gender or sexual orientation.

At any rate, we began to talk, or more accurately, he began to talk. He spoke about himself, at first just a little, and then, in bits and snatches, he told me his whole story, so complicated and tragic it was hard to believe that a human life could ever take this form.

I don’t know why he trusted me to the extent that he did. Perhaps he simply felt the need to confess and I was nearby day after day. Or perhaps, knowing that I was a writer (I had shown him my book of stories) he intentionally presented me with truly invaluable material, which I have lost no time in using.

Tom began his story at the end. He told me how he had had an accident a couple of years before without specifying its nature, how he had been in a coma for a long period, and had undergone a whole series of serious operations, including one to alleviate swelling of his brain. He nearly died, or rather, he did actually die in a clinical sense but, to the doctors’ amazement, was resurrected and was now inexpressibly grateful to fate (or God if he indeed existed) for giving him a second life.

He lived in the housingprojects with his mother on Social Security. And he very much wanted to do something to help the library, and the people who used it as an expression of his gratitude for this second chance to live.

My colleagues and I, having thought about it, decided to give him a trial as a volunteer drawing teacher. Our library is not large but it is very popular locally. Every day it was filled with people, including semi-neglected, shrill children and adolescents belonging to various ethnic groups and sent there by their parents in the hope that the library would provide some minimal civilizing influence or at least supervision.

These library “urchins” are badly disciplined and come in groups consisting of whole families, whole clans. The children are uninterested in reading or any of the other intellectual attractions of the library, with the exception of computer games. Those who are not on the computer make a racket, squabble and run up and down the stairs, pushing each other, until I lose my patience with this bedlam and in my most threatening tones order them “Out! This minute!”

As a result of this outburst we get along without the young library patrons for the next day, since the rules do not allow us to deprive them of our unpaid babysitting services for more than a few days. And it was this wild horde that Tom was supposed to tame, assess for talent and, if he found it, methodically and patiently introduce to art, to creativity.

Tom agreed immediately, and we officially started a free class in drawing and painting. Many more children wanted to enroll than our resources (paper, pencils, brushes, paints) and Tom’s vocal cords could accommodate. But gradually the ones without talent, and the loudest and wildest of the children dropped out. Tom was as pleasant, soft, and meek as freshly baked bread.

On the other hand, children in general tend to be hard-hearted by nature, and those raised in large and strict patriarchal families even more so. They immediately sensed his weak spots and began to treat him with extreme familiarity, hanging on him, clapping him on the shoulder, playing with his long hair or simply pulling it. The most insolent would even ask him, as if out of innocence, “Are you a man or a woman?”

Tom silently and stoically bore it all and only occasionally, when his patience was strained to the breaking point, came over to my desk to complain, “Please, do something! I need a break!” Then I would come out looking as severe as I could and give them all, the guilty and innocent alike, a lecture on politeness and respect for the Teacher (with a capital T). And if that did not help and the hullabaloo continued, I simply put half the class out on the street so that the fresh air would bring them to their senses and cool off their hot temperaments.

There proved to be a number of talented children among Tom’s pupils. Starved for attention at home, and encouraged by their achievements in art, they conscientiously attended the class and stayed until the library closed. Loath to return to their homes, even after closing, they crowded around the door hanging on Tom.

I would drive out of the parking lot, and lock the gate with its heavy lock and wave good-bye to Tom but he and his students would stand there for a long time, talking about something, maybe even arguing. This happened in the steamy summer, in the winter in the frosty darkness of the early nightfall, in the rain, in the snow, in the wind. I realized that Tom too was reluctant to return home.

“Why don’t you go home, Tom? It’s getting late. Aren’t you exhausted after all these wild kids?” I would ask.

“Oh, yes! I am very tired but I’m in no rush to get home. Not really.”

“Why not? If you like I can give you a lift home.”

“You are very kind. Don’t worry, I will take a bus. Some day I’ll tell you the whole story and you will understand why I hate to go home.”

Several months passed and Tom and I grew accustomed to each other. You could even say, we got to be friends. I told him the story of how we emigrated, and in exchange he told me his story. No, Tom definitely did not want to hurry home and indeed there really was nowhere to hurry home to. He had a place to sleep in his mother’s apartment, what’s known as a roof over his head, but he had no real home, a home to which he could gladly return after a hard day, a sanctuary, what Americans call “home, sweet home.”

Tom hated his “home,” ruled over by his elderly mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, and the environment she created. His “home” was in the Canarsie low-income projects, and every evening he had to go back there, since he needed a place to sleep, take a shower, change his clothes, and keep a few things, mainly art books.

He generally ate at McDonalds and other fast food places. He liked junk food, soda, chips, hamburgers, and sweets. All of this was clearly dangerous in light of his extreme obesity, elevated cholesterol and blood sugar, but he didn’t give a hoot for diets or doctor’s advice and somehow managed to survive with and despite all his medical conditions. Most likely God really does exist somewhere above us all, since He not only gave Tom a second life, but used all His divine powers to maintain this life.

Tom not only possessed a simple English first name, but also a very common English surname, Johnson. However, he was half Indian. His mother was a descendent of the ancient Mayans. Long before Tom’s birth, her family emigrated to the States from Guatemala.

In her youth, Tom’s mother was a raven-haired beauty, with almond-shaped, passionate black eyes. (He told me this with some pride and even brought some family photographs, so that I would not doubt this fact.) It is not surprising that Tom’s father fell in love with this beautiful Indian girl and gave her three sons.

But despite this love and the three little boys, they somehow neglected to marry. Whether as a result of incompatible personalities or backgrounds, or whether his parents interfered and forbade a marriage, they never really became a family.

The mother drowned her sorrows in drink and drugs, and has continued to do so to this day. The father married another woman and had two more children with her; while Tom and his brothers were dumped on their father’s parents to raise.

Tom’s grandfather was a former Army captain living on a pension after discharge for a “nervous disability” and he ran his household according to the principle of true military discipline. The children were obliged to stand at attention and answer all his orders with “Yes, sir!” The level of discipline bordered on cruelty, the bare minimum of food, reveille at 6:00 a.m., bedtime at 9:00 pm, absolute submission and unquestioning obedience — these were the rigid conditions under which Tom and his younger brothers were raised.

The grandfather wanted to send his oldest grandson to a military school as soon as possible, to make a “real man” of him. The boy did everything he could to avoid this and at the age of 14 ran away from home and bummed around the country, somehow earning enough to keep body and soul together.

They found him, brought him back home, flogged him physically and verbally, and sent him to school so that at least he would get a high school diploma. For a while Tom appeared to give in and conscientiously attended school. But here too he found a way to displease his grandfather since he directed all his enthusiasm and talent, not toward mathematics and the hard sciences, but toward the humanities, English, history and, unexpectedly, drawing.

He wrote poetry in secret and drew portraits of good-looking girls on his math homework. His math teacher, annoyed by such frank disrespect for his subject, sent for his grandfather. After hearing the teacher out with lowered eyes, Captain Johnson went home intending to whip his grandson again, but Tom, who had already begun to shave, refused to be flogged and. if his grandmother had not intervened, it would have been the older man who suffered the strap. This was the end of Tom’s grandparents’ attempts to raise him as they thought proper. After this they left him alone.

Captain Johnson must be given his due. In spite of his severity and military habits, he sometimes showed traces of real sympathy and compassion. For example Tom and his brothers were permitted to stay in touch with their mother, who in those years had not lost all remains of humanity and, weeping softly, embraced and kissed her growing children

Once during the summer their mother, with their grandparents’ permission of course, even took them to far-off Guatemala for three months. Their mother brought them to the mountain village in the western part of the country where she had spent her childhood.

The villagers were Indians who spoke one of the Mayan dialects. They wore traditional heavily decorated Indian clothes and lived according to their old traditions, without much interest in what took place beyond the bounds of their village and community. Only a handful of villagers, all men, spoke Spanish.

Their religious situation was a bit more complex. They honored the local gods and spirits, but at the same time believed in one God, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary. The Indian villagers did not have enough land to feed themselves properly so every year the men went off to nearby regions to work on coffee plantations in order to support their families

Poverty, clay huts with thatch roofs, the prematurely sun-aged faces of the once-beautiful women, the half-naked, ragged children, the coarse-voiced, constantly drunk men, a profusion of insects and reptiles, all against the background of a sky that was blindingly blue by day and velvety black and star-studded at night.

This is how Tom remembered the summer he spent at his mother’s birthplace and, starting that summer, he began to draw seriously. Because of the lack of paper and pencils, Tom drew in the sand with a stick, or with charcoal on the rocks and walls of the huts, in short, wherever and however he could.

He mainly drew the villagers, especially the young women with bronze skin, long, blue-black hair, and almond-shaped eyes as dark as olives. The women were flattered by Tom’s attention and, stealing time from their domestic chores, began to pose for the young man.

His popularity in the village grew. Noticing what was going on, his mother decided to go to the nearest town and buy her son several notebooks and a box of colored pencils. Tom was delighted. He drew instinctively, with his whole being, sensing the laws of light, shadow, and midtones. He drew slowly, scrupulously sketching the young faces with their tender ovals, full lips and eyelashes as thick as clusters of young pine needles.

One of his models — 16-year old Maria — had her portrait drawn more than the others. He came up with new poses for her, asked her to change her hair style (to wear it loose or caught up on top of her head), with a fan in her hands, or with flowers in her hair. Maria obediently modified her appearance, smiled her modest smile with concealed passion in its corners and gazed at Tom with obvious adoration.

The artist and his model scarcely said a word to each other. And they scarcely needed to. True passion is wordless. An inappropriately spoken word, an overly direct question or a timidly evasive answer would only have frightened the young lovers.

Finally, Tom resolved to find a way to meet with Maria in private. “When it gets dark, come to the abandoned hut at the edge of the village,” he murmured in his broken Spanish and indicated the meeting place with his head. And by some miracle she understood not Tom’s words, since her Spanish was even worse than his, but his desire, since she desired the same thing.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Yelena Litinskaya
Translation © 2012 by Lydia Razran Stone

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