The Works of Michael Onofrey
Michael Onofrey's stories have appeared in Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (anthology, University of New Mexico Press, 2013), Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, and Weber - The Contemporary West, as well as in other fine places. A novel, Bewilderment is forthcoming from Tailwinds Press in 2017.
All Fiction © Michael Onofrey
The first thing Claire noticed when she saw Myrna was age.
But how could it have been otherwise? It had been seventeen years since they last saw each other, which was the difference between thirty-three years old and fifty years old. Of course it worked both ways. Claire was now fifty years old as well. They were at McCarran Airport, Claire having just arrived from Los Angeles, Myrna waiting. Claire said, “My God,” and then they were hugging.
Actually, Myrna didn’t look too bad, and as they hugged Claire could feel it. Myrna was slim. But she had always been slim and tall, nearly six feet. Claire’s frame was medium, which lent itself to full-breasted. They had hung together in college, CalArts, and then in Venice Beach and Ocean Park after college. Naturally they were interested in art, but after college, when they migrated south to Ocean Park and Venice, their paths diverged and defined themselves, Myrna getting into interior decorating, Claire going to work at a gallery in Venice. After Claire got married she opened her own gallery in Ocean Park. At around thirty years old, connections and opportunity lured Myrna to Las Vegas where she got married and then got divorced. Claire had visited during those first couple of years when Myrna was in Vegas, but that had tapered off over time to an occasional phone call, one of which took place when they were about thirty-five years old, and it was that phone call, fifteen years ago, along with a process of slow incubation, that now had them face-to-face at McCarran.
Eleven in the morning. They would do lunch. After lunch they would drive to a mobile home park on the extreme east side of town to see Wayne.
From McCarran they headed east on Tropicana Avenue, Myrna at the wheel of a Toyota Tacoma pickup, regular cab, low camper shell over the bed of the truck. At Boulder Highway they turned, and not long after that they entered a huge parking lot that was part of a shopping center. Myrna knew a place, a quiet coffee shop, Mediterranean food. In the parking lot, while walking to the coffee shop, they remarked about the weather, Claire declaring it, “Superb.” A Tuesday, World Series time, end of October.
A modest establishment, a counter and eight tables. There were ten customers. No music, not even Muzak. They sat at a table next to a plate-glass window that faced the parking lot. They each order a Greek salad, hummus, pita bread, and iced tea.
Myrna’s hair, cropped short and lying flat against her skull, was very black and seemingly soft. Myrna had always had soft hair, but now there were hints of dryness, desert air probably responsible, and “very black” probably meant hair dye. Claire’s hairdresser in Santa Monica used highlighter on Claire’s hair, which gave it a chestnut appearance, hairstyle a thick pageboy. Sleek, rectangular glasses elongated Myrna’s dark eyes. Contacts brightened Claire’s hazel irises. Both women took care of their teeth, and neither used much in the way of makeup.
They had on light cotton dresses that came to their knees, Claire’s with pastel brush-marks on beige fabric, Myrna’s with tiny purple flowers on gray fabric. Naturally Claire’s dress was larger in girth, but that had always been the case, yet more so now. Claire had borne two children. Myrna hadn’t done that. Claire’s face was plump and smooth. Myrna’s displayed thin crows feet, complexion sun-brown.
They smiled, they talked, they chuckled. They ate their food and sipped their iced teas. They had done well, or so it appeared. They had time to talk, for Wayne wasn’t expecting them until two-thirty.
“How are your children?”
“Fine . . . in a sense.”
“In a sense?”
“They’re in college, UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State. Mark at UC, Cindy at San Diego.” Claire smiled, but it was a half-smile.
“They’re taking General Ed courses right now, but Mark’s getting to the end of that. He can go in one of several directions, but it’s all humanities.” Again, a half-smile. “Neither one of them knows what they want to do.”
“Is that bad?”
“I suppose not. I mean, they’re not stealing cars . . . that I know of.”
This elicited chuckling, but perhaps the mirth was perfunctory. Along the edge of Myrna’s left ear four silver studs shine like chrome dots.
“Let’s talk about Wayne.”
“Okay,” Myrna said, but then paused, and to further this she looked out the window.
Claire, looking at Myrna’s profile, said “Is this difficult for some reason?”
Myrna didn’t respond.
“On the phone you said let’s talk about Wayne over lunch, save it for lunch.”
Myrna nodded, but still no verbal reply.
“There’s been some interest in his work,” Claire said. “I think I mentioned this on the phone. And there’s more to it than that.”
Myrna’s view left the window. “More?”
“Yes. It’s just a hunch on my part, a feeling, but . . . I think the market is shifting, or at least a certain clique in the market. Pure abstraction, and then these installations with everyone going so far out to be different. So now there are people, although there have always been some people, who are tired of being confused, tired of trying to figure out what different means. I wouldn’t say it’s a conservative reaction because these are not conservative people. They believe in modern art, but they’re older now, and they’re itching for something to relate to. Several people have asked about Wayne’s work. They remembered it, and of course some of them bought some pieces. And, I probably mentioned this, he left four watercolors with me when he moved out here to Vegas. I sold two of those years ago. The other two I have hanging in my house.”
“What’s he doing?” Claire asked.
“You mean . . . art-wise?”
“Yes. Is he still fooling with Edward Hopper?”
“Kind of,” replied Myrna. “Yes, Hopper’s still in some pieces. But . . . even with those there’s been a change. He’s brought the desert into his work. He’s doing other things, too. He’s got van Gogh in some things—landscapes, but they’re desert landscapes, and he’ll put in an animal. He likes roadrunners. There’s one that hangs out near his singlewide. And some years ago he was studying Klimt. He goes to the library, walks to a public library. Right now he’s looking at Degas, tracing and practicing the lines.”
“Did you tell him I want to see some work?”
“I did. He’s putting something together. I suggested variety, a little of this and a little of that.”
“And you say he hasn’t gone to oils or acrylics?”
“That’s right. Drawings, simple graphite or colored pencils, and of course pastels and watercolors. He combines these sometimes. There’s this collage effect at times, and he fractures some of his images, shows different angles, almost cubism.”
“But no pure abstract?”
“No. There’s always subject, always image. But it’s often lonely, or . . . divorced, divorced from . . . something. He gives you image, but then he leads you away, leads you to something else. Even with still life.”
“And you’re using these for interior decorating?”
Myrna nodded. “And I’m giving him nothing for it. Three for a hundred dollars. Of course I have to mat and frame them. But still, it’s nothing. But what am I to do? I’m a decorator. I need something for walls. As I told you, I’m really glad you gave me his address . . . what, fifteen years ago or so?”
Myrna moistened her lips with her tongue, lips slightly chapped.
“He understands this,” Myrna said. “Actually, he endorses it. He says he’s happy with the arrangement.”
Myrna picked up her glass of iced tea. Claire waited.
“He’s really helped me, Claire. I’m getting work, good work.
People are calling. This has been going on for years now, even with the economy as it is, and I think it has a lot to do with what I put on the walls. Ever since that first café, a Viennese-style coffee shop in one of those mall-arcades connected to a hotel on the Strip, I’ve been using his stuff. So it’s kind of like it’s become a trade mark of mine. It’s a little frightening. If I lose him, I lose that.”
“I’m not here to take him away from you.”
“I know that. And to tell you the truth, I hope he goes for what I think you might propose. You’re thinking of a show, right?”
“I told him that. I told him that I thought you might be thinking of a show. He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no. But he did say that he’s not getting involved with any of the social stuff. He won’t be at the opening. I can almost guarantee that.”
“Well, what’s with him?” Claire asked. “I never got a phone number. He sent me his address after he moved here, you know, in case I sold one of his pieces I could send him a check, which I did. But I never got a phone number, and then you tell me that he doesn’t want you to give me his number.”
“And I told you not to take it personally,” Myrna hurried to say. “He doesn’t allow me to give his number to anyone. He’s got a cellphone, and I think it’s only me and the medical center that have that number.”
A waitress refilled their glasses of iced tea, denim on her legs, gum in her mouth. She gave a quick smile and walked away. Myrna looked out the window. Claire picked up her glass of tea.
“He sold his pickup truck a couple of months after he arrived here, in Las Vegas,” Myrna related while still looking out the window. “He’s been without a motor vehicle ever since. He has a red wagon, like children have, and he pulls the wagon behind him when he goes to the supermarket that’s about a mile and a half away from his mobile home. He carts groceries home in the wagon. He’s still rangy, but he’s lost weight.”
Myrna paused, and then continued.
“He lives in a singlewide that he bought secondhand, a resale, but the previous owner hadn’t lived in it very long, so it was practically new when he bought it. Anyway, as it happens, the singlewide is spotted in a section of the mobile home park that’s relatively new, or at least new when he moved in. The idea was to expand the mobile home park and increase tenancy, but then the economy went blah, which brought everything in this town to a standstill, or at least a lot of things to a standstill. It’s only now that some sectors are picking up. At any rate, the back of his singlewide faces the desert because he’s at the back of the mobile home park. It’s a huge complex, but in his section there aren’t many tenants, so vacant trailer spots surround his singlewide. Weeds are growing, that sort of thing. He says he likes that.”
Myrna looked at Claire and said, “He’s become a recluse, Claire.”
“A recluse?” questioned Claire.
“Yes. He takes walks in the desert. He’s got a cat that he found stumbling around out in the sun near his trailer when he moved in. The cat was a kitten then. Now, of course, it’s old. He doesn’t have a TV. No computer, either. But he reads a newspaper every day. There’s a convenience store out on the highway that he walks to get the newspaper. As I mentioned, he walks to the library. Sometimes he goes to a casino that’s on the highway to watch football or basketball in the sports book. He might bet ten dollars on a game.”
“And there’s something else, too.”
“He’s a bird watcher, a ‘birder’ as people say. He’s got a pair of binoculars and a couple of field guides and he keeps a log, a notebook of sightings and comments. But he does this independently. He doesn’t belong to a group or anything like that. Even the AA meetings he goes to are all ‘open meetings.’ He doesn’t want to join the ‘program,’ doesn’t want a ‘sponsor’ or a ‘friend.’ There are a couple of places that have meetings that he can get to on foot, and even more, a lot more, that he can get to via the bus system.”
Myrna sipped her tea.
“You seem to know quite a bit about him,” Claire said.
A pause, a wedge of silence. And then: “We talk.” But again, another pause. Myrna brought a hand up to finger the silver studs along the edge of her ear. The hand came down.
“We do more than talk.”
“And that’s another thing that’s hard to explain, and I suppose that’s why I’m a little nervous about this. But I need to tell you. You might see it in some of the work he’s going to show you. But of course a lot of it is difficult to see because of what he does with it. As I said, he uses these different techniques—fracturing, angles, collage, invention. But you might see me. But even if you don’t, I guess I should tell you. But the problem isn’t that it’s a ‘secret.’ That’s not the problem. The problem is that I don’t know how to describe it.”
“It’s not an affair. I’m not married, and he’s not married, and this isn’t a brief fling. I’ve looked the word up in a dictionary.”
Claire raised an eyebrow.
“A relationship,” Claire ventured.
“Yes and no,” Myrna said. “In a broad sense, ‘yes.’ But in the usual sense, like: ‘I’m in a relationship,’ or ‘Our relationship is such-an-such,’ I’d have to say, ‘no.’”
A grin was on Claire’s plump face.
“It’s not like that,” said Myrna. “Yeah, we have sex, but it’s different than . . . It doesn’t have that passionate drive that sex and relationship usually have. That’s not what this is.”
Claire’s grin continued.
“I go over to his place, his singlewide, sometimes for business, sometimes for other things—sex, or talk, or to sit at his patio table and look at the desert and drink coffee, and of course sometimes for all of those things together. I don’t go every day or anything like that, and I never spend the night. I always call before I go over because sometimes he’s out—supermarket, library, wherever. We’ll decided on a time. It’s always his place. He never comes to my apartment. That’s not in the equation. Actually, it hasn’t even been suggested.”
“He’s older. He’s fifteen years older than I am.”
“He’s really kind of happy right now, and that’s because he’s turned sixty-five, so he gets Medicare. He no longer has to pay for private health insurance. This saves him a lot of money. He’s collecting Social Security. You know, he was a housepainter/handyman before Marlene came along. And he put into Social Security when his work sold, like at your gallery and other places. But he doesn’t get a whole lot. His expenses are slim, though, and that was a big part of why he left L.A. and moved to Vegas and moved into a singlewide. He wanted to downsize, wanted to reduce his expenses, and that was part of what precipitated his split with Marlene. She was into ‘buying things,’ a ‘buying-things lifestyle’ as he puts it. He just couldn’t see the sense of it. And then there was this other thing with Marlene, how she was sociable, and how she was promoting his work—parties, openings, introductions, networking. He was uncomfortable with all that, and he was very uncomfortable with the gossip that went beyond talking about someone’s work—the malicious gossip, the backbiting, the sarcastic jokes, the jockeying for position in the hierarchy. The whole idea of being ‘cool’ got to him. So of course he was having problems with Marlene, yet it was more like she was having problems with him because he was going in a different direction. He was beginning to see certain things, and some of those things he didn’t like, and that included things in their relationship, and aspects of his so-called climb in the marketplace and what that meant. He didn’t like the social aspect, and how it was essential for notoriety and success—he didn’t like what he was becoming.”
Myrna stopped talking.
“I kind of knew that,” Claire said. “I sensed that. The two shows I had for him, I’d see him standing around as if it pained him, like he couldn’t wait to get out of there. Fortunately, Marlene was there to rescue the situation.”
“Yeah. So the solution he came up with was to walk away from it, a policy of nonparticipation. When he got to Las Vegas, he honed that.”
“I guess he did.”
“He’s gone, Claire.”
Claire picked up her glass of iced tea.
“But,” said Myrna, “in another sense, he’s the sanest person I’ve ever met.”
“I go over to his place and everything changes, changes for me. Even before I step through the front door, like when I’m parking in his parking space, with the desert on the other side of a chain-link fence that’s nearby, I know things have changed. I’ve changed. Wayne and I have talk about this, about how our surroundings change us.”
“Maybe it’s anticipation.”
“Yes, maybe it is.”
“I went over that first time, showed up at his front door, and of course he was surprised. But he remembered me, remembered me from Ocean Park. So he invites me in and we sit at the breakfast nook with cups of coffee. There’s a view of the desert out the window. I told him what I did and what I was looking for. So we go to his workroom, his studio, a bedroom he converted to a studio, and he’s got all these finished pieces organized in low wooden boxes in a closet, organized according to subject—plants, animals, men, women, men and women, etcetera. He pulls down a box labeled ‘fruit’ and another labeled ‘food and drink’ and another labeled ‘flowers.’ It was like he had been waiting for me. I chose fifteen pieces, no problem. We agreed on the money. Again, no problem. We had brought our cups of coffee with us. Sunshine was coming in through the windows. We had taken care of business, so it was like: ‘Now what?’ He said, ‘Would you like to sit on the couch and I’ll do a sketch?’ He’s got a couch in his workroom. So I sit on the couch, and he’s at his worktable, and he sketches. His eyes are going back and forth between me and the paper. After he sketches for a while, I say, ‘Do you want me to take my clothes off?’ For the life of me, Claire, I have no idea where that came from. Maybe it was a joke. But . . . there it was. And of course that changed everything. He said, ‘Well, if you want to.’ So I take my clothes off and it was so strange, because it was different than being naked with a lover. He sat at his worktable and looked at me and drew, but it was a different kind of ‘looking’ as opposed to a lover looking at me. And it was a different kind of me, a different kind of showing my body. We sipped our coffees and we started talking. He did several sketches. And then he said, ‘I’m getting aroused.’ So I said, ‘Take your clothes off.’ So he did, but he didn’t come over to the couch. He sat at the corner of his worktable and did another sketch. Of course now I was looking at the ‘naked him’ as opposed to the ‘clothed him.’ Later, a couple of days later, after he had worked the sketches up into a couple of watercolors, I saw that he was able to get this—my looking at the ‘naked him,’ which was different than my looking at the ‘clothed him.’ It was amazing—my expression, my body, my posture.”
Claire nodded slowly.
“So anyways, we were naked and we were sitting apart and he was sketching and we were talking, and in a situation like that you can talk about anything.”
“We always discuss. We always have this discussion before we have sex of any kind. We discuss what we might want, or what ideas we might have—fantasies, settings, even what we might want to eat or drink or look at or talk about. It’s these discussions that set the whole thing back, so that even when we’re engaged in whatever it is we’ve decided to do, we are away from it, like we’re looking at it, like we’re looking at ourselves. We’re in it, but we’re removed.”
Myrna fingered her glass of iced tea.
“He says we go through phases, phases in life. He calls them ‘windows,’ windows that open and close. When I met him, he was fifty years old and I was thirty-five. But it wasn’t just that I was thirty-five. It was more than that. I was coming off these relationships, one and then another and then another. These were after I thought I was over my horrible marriage and its divorce. From hindsight, though, I can see how I was grasping for something, something that I thought was necessary, or normal. I wanted to be normal. Perhaps this was necessary in a way, for these skittish relationships were desperate affairs, and maybe I needed that, needed to see the futility of role-playing in an effort to fulfill expectation. But I’m really not sure about this. You know, did I actually need to go through all that in order to move on? By the time I walked into Wayne’s singlewide, I was ready for something else.”
Myrna looked down at her glass of iced tea.
“It was only after a while that I understood that Wayne didn’t have an agenda.”
Myrna looked at Claire.
“This wasn’t going to be a relationship, at least not like we usually think of relationship.”
“It’s so strange. Call it coincidence, or whatever. Wayne calls it ‘the random factor.’ He says this undermines assumptions.”
“You had given me his address, and you had said that maybe there might be something there I could use. So I went over to Wayne’s with the idea: ‘What the hell?’ I went over there on a lark.”
“And now fifteen years have gone by. Windows have opened and closed.”
“I imagine they have.”
Myrna picked up her glass of iced tea.
“But what is it that you actually do with him?”
“We do everything.”
“That’s very descriptive.”
“Well, we don’t actually do everything. We never neck, for example. We’ve never done that. We hardly kiss. We don’t use the word ‘love.’ And in a sense, what constitutes foreplay are these discussions and set-ups and props and poses and saying things, certain words, certain language.
“We never go anywhere. We never go to the movies or out to dinner or anything like that. We’ve discussed this. He says that stuff belongs to an earlier window, a window that’s closing, if not already closed. Other windows, though, remain open. That’s how he puts it.”
“No kissing, huh?”
“Well, no, not on the lips. Do you and Dan still neck?”
“You read my thoughts.”
“We use the word ‘love,’ though,” Claire asserted.
“Of course. And you have children, children in college, and you’re married and so forth. Wayne says, ‘People open different windows.’”
“Of course Wayne’s older,” related Myrna, “so his ‘windows’ are different than mine. And of course he’s male, and I’m female.”
“Some windows we open. Others open and close on their own, biological windows. Windows are flung open sometimes because of chemicals careening through our bodies. A lot of this has to do with what we’re thinking. But it’s not all thought, because there’s this interplay with perception, which brings the outside world into our minds.”
“Yeah. But what I’m trying to get at is—this discussion aspect.”
“Relationship has this inherent pattern of going someplace—forwards or backwards or wherever. It’s almost like ‘relationship’ needs to do something, and in this there’s this alliance, this whole bundle of perceived obligations. Even when we say ‘open relationship,’ we still got ‘relationship.’ But then, there’s this other thing called ‘friendship,’ which doesn’t require that. I mean, where does a ‘friendship’ have to go?”
“All right, so you have ‘friendship,’ a friendship that involves sex.”
“There, too, we can’t exactly nail it down, not like that. Wayne and I have discussed this. Wayne says that ‘friendship’ is a window in our childhood that extends into our youth, and that the friendships we take on later in life are different. In a sense, they’re attempts to recreate that window that was part of youth.”
Myrna paused. Claire waited.
“So Wayne and I are either trying to reproduce a window of our youth, or we are doing something else.”
“Why not both?”
“Yeah. That’s on the board.”
“You got to understand,” Myrna said. “Wayne’s spent a lot of time alone. He says that solitude has brought him to these conclusions.”
“Solitude? You meaning the desert and living without a car?”
“Yes and no. He says that when he was in L.A. he had glimpses of this, but it was very confusing because a big city covers up what’s underneath, and what’s underneath is aloneness, which frightens people. So he came out here and stopped avoiding that.”
“Sounds like an ascetic.”
“Sort of. We’ve talked about that, too. He said that at first, his situation was one of desperation, but now it’s not desperation so much, not a crisis-lifestyle thing anymore. It’s more of a day-to-day maintenance project, which, to some extent, he borrowed from AA. But he extends this beyond the issue of alcohol.”
“Okay, I kind of get that.”
Myrna sipped her tea.
“On the backside of his trailer there’s the desert. It’s private, in a sense. Someone would have to walk around the trailer to see us. So we discussed this and agreed to go out there, out the back door. He’s cleared the ground. There are a couple of foam mats that we set down. So we’re there with our clothes off. He’s set up a full-length mirror that’s on casters. The mirror is usually in his studio. He likes to work with mirrors. Anyway, he’s brought the mirror outside and it’s in front of us, which puts the mirror between us and the chain-link fence. On the other side of the chain-link fence there is nothing but desert. So we start talking, and in this we way we get aroused. We don’t touch each other. We lie there naked and talk. At first, this was very strange. You know, we’ve done this any number of times, inside his trailer and in various rooms, or sometimes outside. Anyway, so with the mirror outside, after he’s aroused, I straddle him, and of course my view is toward the mirror, with the desert behind the mirror. I’m in the mirror. There’s this rectangle, and in the rectangle there’s sexual movement, which is midst the desert. That moving image, which is my image, is in the desert, or on the desert. My mind is going from one thing to another—the desert, the sky, my expression, a raven cawing, my motion in the mirror, the framing, the clarity of reflection, and my reactions. My body, meanwhile, is doing what it’s doing on its own with me watching it, as if I’m divorced from that activity, which of course is impossible. I have some input, but I can’t control the whole thing—I can see this.
“He set this up. Rather, we set it up. He does this, too, with his body in order to take himself out of the action. It prolongs the activity because it takes his mind away from himself by placing his cognition at the edge of ‘play,’ or ‘observation,’ or ‘description.’”
Myrna paused. “He’s able to put this in his work, Claire.”
They sipped iced tea.
“Well, how do you hang this on the walls of a café?”
“The standing back,” Myrna said. “The different angles, the different perspectives. Take, for example, two people sitting on a couch, watching TV. One person has a potato chip in his or her hand and the other has a little dead sparrow on his or her palm, sparrow belly-up with its tiny, twig-like legs bent.
But of course I can’t put that in a café, either. But the idea is, or what happens is: looking at these people and getting a feeling of discovery, which turns ‘looking’ into ‘watching,’ because at first you don’t see the little bird. You see two people watching television. But then you see the bird, so things change. Ideas begin to develop in the viewer’s mind—boredom, neglect, madness, cruelty. The viewer takes a second look at these two individuals. You keep looking, keep coming back, keep seeing.
“He can do this with something as seemingly simple as a plate of fruit, a Cézanne kind of still life, but with more emphasis on time—time passing. He gives you the fruit, but it’s in various stages of decay. Each piece is in its own stage, thus detached, yet it’s on the plate with the others. Your eye goes from one piece to another. Technically it’s a still life. Yet it’s moving because your perceptions are moving. It’s almost sad in its inevitability, and yet . . . there’s this beautiful that lingers.”