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Nelly Hunter: An Investigation
I told Nelly—yes, the Nelly Hunter—about my love of Wagner. I paid my college tuition by working as an artist’s model, posing naked and sneezing from paint fumes. Last Monday, I stood in Nelly’s loft, afternoon sunshine streaming through the boxcar windows. Brilliant yellow light highlighted my pale skin, made me golden. Nelly sat on her faded-green stool, feet swinging above the dusty floor. She was five foot one, small enough to be a jockey. And she wore a flaming-red sundress cut so low that it exposed her liver-spotted chest. She smoked her second cigarette in the space of ten minutes, while glancing at me, drawing bold streaks on the canvas with charcoal pencil. I wondered if she saw my erection, a reaction to the burning-hot room. Nelly had a long, seriously cragged face. Her blue eyes glittered, as they always did. Nelly could fall from the Empire State Building, and her eyes would still gleam that blue tint. She returned her gaze to the canvas.
“Goddamn Wagner,” she muttered, her deep voice resonating through the smoke as she balanced the cigarette between her meager mouth. “Your mother probably thought that you were turning into Hitler.” She puffed the cigarette, and wisps of smoke traveled up from the canvas. “Like Edith Piaf?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I’m not turning into a Frenchwoman.”
“I Frenched a lot of men.” She stopped sketching. She banged her pencil against the ledge of the easel and stared at my crotch. I almost grabbed myself.
“Too hot?” Nelly asked.
“Get dressed, I’m finished for today.” She stepped from the stool, the hem of her dress brushing against her thin pink knees. The easel towered over her. I grabbed my clothes from the floor and shook the dust off. I liked how quickly my clothes returned to clean. My professors were telling the truth—I was the most fastidious of artists. I watched Nelly take a final puff of her cigarette. She ground the butt on the floor with the sole of her cheap plastic sandal. She hummed a song by Peggy Lee. It was about being a woman, enjoying the fact. I imagined Nelly in the 1950s, young and vibrant, a rising star in New York’s art scene. I envisioned pictures of Nelly socializing with Hans Hoffman and Gore Vidal, standing amongst works in progress. The pictures were in black and white, and Nelly’s eyes remained cool blue, hard.
She had prodigious appetites, for art and men and alcohol and cigarettes and desire. In the winter of her life, she still yearned for all of them.
In all of our conversations, she never mentioned her children. All the reference books regarding artists mentioned her three children, how they had died in a fire at their Bleecker Street flat. Nelly almost went to jail for neglect. She acted like she never bore them, never feared jail. In my shoulder bag, I carried an old microfiche printout. I studied the picture of the children. The picture of the children was the most important thing to me.
My younger brother was smaller than I was—but more handsome. He was named Matthew Grant Morgenstern, and he played on the high-school football team. He read nothing more demanding than porn magazines with barely legal models. His drawings all looked like chicken scratch. Nelly’s eldest child, her only son, was also named Matthew. His father was supposed to be an English artist, Jewish. Lucian Freud perhaps? In the article’s picture, Matthew and his sisters stood in the middle of a camp, the tableau of pines and firs in the background. Matthew’s eyes glittered pale, like his mother’s. He had the same prim mouth, and only his unruly dark hair alluded to his exotic ancestry, his foreignness. He looked like a cauldron of unreleased emotions. Icicles and fireworks.
During our sessions, Nelly liked to disparage women. Especially women artists. She called Dame Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures “fat bitches,” and Kate Millett’s works “the droppings of a ball breaker.” Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits were unspeakable. I told her that some men considered her just as bad as the female artists she hated. She guffawed.
“I like men who hate women,” she replied. “They’re good in bed.”
At around seven, I left the loft and stepped into the dark-blue evening. I rushed to the train station at 14th Street and 8th Avenue, sneezing from the odor of pine cleaner; it was on the steps leading to the turnstile. I returned to my room on 65th Street. I tripped on my broken-down, odorous sneakers, as evening made the room dim. I heard the concert at Lincoln Center, an orchestra playing Mozart. The flute concerto fluttered as delicately as ribbons on a girl’s dress. I used to like Mozart, but now considered him too classical, too polite.
Other stuff cluttered the floor. Soiled clothes, paper plates, Chinese-food cartons, stacks of art magazines. The air smelled of garlic and ginger. I plopped on the sofabed, and ran my stiff fingers over the crochet blanket. Shoulder bag on my lap, I turned on the lamp, the lampshade reflecting its’ greenness on my lap. I read the old article again, the many ads with illustrated models in crinoline skirts and high heels. Nelly liked high heels, but claimed to loath crinoline skirts. She cheered when styles changed in the 1960s. I identified with the female journalist’s style. The sob sister reminded me of Wagner—-a weakened, feminized version. After reading the article, and imagining Nelly in a crinoline skirt (she would have paint all over the horsehair), I forgot to take my medication. I fell asleep and slept like I had taken it.
I was the first child in the family. Matthew arrived next, and the only girl, Rachel, was the baby. Back in 1995, just before the Oklahoma City bombing, and my breakdown, Mother thought she was pregnant. Feared she was pregnant, is more like it; she liked to complain about giving birth, never leavening the pain with the joys of motherhood. She was 46, had a slow thyroid, and spent days holed up in the master bedroom, sobbing. Her fat body quivered in the white bedsheets.
Between fits of tears, she asked my father what he wanted to name the baby. He suggested the name Emily. He spoke like Mother was actually expecting.
“Emily isn’t Jewish,” Mother snapped back. “It’s bad enough Matt has his name. I’ve never seen him with a nice Jewish girl. Just black and Hispanic trash.”
Father didn’t respond, but stared ahead, his brown eyes pleading, wide as a child’s. Mother was the daughter of two Jews—-first cousins, in fact. She studied at Yeshiva University up in Washington Heights, and worked as a lab technician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem. My paternal grandmother was from Savannah, Georgia, a redhead of impeccable WASP heritage. She married a Jewish boy from the Bronx, and abandoned her only son when he was one month old. Mother was four years younger than Father. But he considered her Mother. He yearned for a mother all his life.
A week later, Mother found out she wasn’t pregnant. In fact, she was menopausal. She stopped sobbing, and returned to the world. The Oklahoma City bombing happened, and I couldn’t watch TV, or listen to the radio, without hearing about bodies being torn apart. The weather was colder than usual, but I burned. I felt cockroaches crawl on my skin; I remembered Mother bragging about our immaculate house. I saw a mouse in my bedroom, and Rachel joked, “You saw Mickey Mouse? I’m going to Disney World.” At school one day, I sobbed in math class, and didn’t stop even after the nurse led me to her office. I had to go to a special hospital for crazy teenagers. Father drove me there, making the small talk of a cabby, a servant. I told Nelly I learned drawing at the mental hospital. It was art therapy, I said.
Nelly turned up her nose, like she’d smelled something rancid.
“My art made me even crazier. Art therapy is bullshit.”
“Some bullshit is good,” I said, as Nelly handed me a cigarette. “That’s called manure.”
Emily, Nelly’s youngest child, is the plump, brown toddler in the picture. She wore a one-piece bathing suit, frills against her thighs. The summer sunlight made her even darker. But her eyes glittered pale, like the eyes of her brother Matthew. I was surprised that the newspaper photo picked up this detail. She was Nelly’s child by a jazz pianist who died of a heroin overdose. He tried to be like Charlie Parker.
I woke up at six in the morning, my blanket brushing against a paper plate on the floor. The brightening sky still held traces of deep blue. My mouth tasted dry, tongue thick. I stood and stretched my arms above my head. I started to feel waves on my skin. I liked the strangeness of the sensation. I thought about my ex-girlfriend, Rosalind, and how she kissed me all over my body. Her tongue burned against my skin, and her mouth felt silky when I came. She didn’t swallow.
I thought about breakfast at school. Waffles with raspberry sauce, fresh coffee, beef sausage. I liked to eat slow, allowing the flavors to saturate me with pleasure. For the length of the meal, I didn’t think about the pain my thoughts caused. After breakfast, I would have a class on painting still life and I’d try not to spill paint on my clothes.
Before my shower, I scanned the article again. The sob sister mentioned how the children’s bodies looked. The children were charred; the coroner used dental records to identify them. This was hard, because the mother liked to take them to Mexico, Peru, Morocco. And hated sending them to the dentist. Their charred teeth were broken from infection, abscesses caught in foreign lands.
Mother used to like the name Emily. When I was eight, I broke my wrist. At the emergency room, I met a pediatrician named Emily Norris. She had curly blonde hair, and a fresh, peachy complexion. She spoke with a slow, Southern accent, and I thought I met Father’s mother. Dr. Norris was as pretty as the faded portraits of Grandma Morgenstern. “Emily is a sweet name,” Mother told Dr. Norris, gazing at her beauty. Mother drove me home. The car smelled like the glue of my cast.
At the mental hospital, the staff forever trudged the hallways. The pain of the patients seeped through their gray-complexioned skins. It was then that I realized that “normal” people hated the mentally ill because they could slip into the mire.
My bladder felt ready to burst. I slipped the article in the shoulder bag and ran to the bathroom. There was a strong smell of bleach, spilled on the tub. I still felt the waves on my skin. I felt surrounded by water.
At class, I painted a still life—plastic fruit in a wicker basket—with gouache. The paint streaked red and blue and yellow on my fingers. I hated the slickness of the paint; I hated how it blotched my jeans. My professors were right. I could see wriggling dots on the plastic fruits, and I was smart enough not to mention it. At the hospital, I would mention the weird stuff I saw, and receive higher doses of Lithium and Mellaril. I forgot that this was still my life.
My cell phone rang at lunchtime. “Hello?” My mouth tasted of creamy ranch dressing and salad.
Nelly’s words were perforated by her hacking cough. “Any classes in the afternoon?” “Just a color theory class,” I said. “We’re discussing Gaugin today.”
She laughed, pleased. “I remembered my color-theory class, back in art school. My professor was named Stieglitz—not Alfred Stieglitz.” She sighed, and I almost thought she’d mention the children. “Speaking of Stieglitz, I’m starting to get into photography.”
“You want to be a female Stieglitz,” I asked.
“I want to be Stieglitz. I’ll pay you $24 an hour, if you head here after class. I’m taking pictures on the order of Stieglitz’s series on Georgia O’Keefe.”
I turned red, remembering the gauzy, unapologetically explicit pictures of Georgia O’Keefe’s breasts and vulva. Nelly was still thinking about my cock, being horny in an elegant way. I liked that.
“I’ll be there,” I said. “I gotta eat first.”
She laughed, coughed again. “I hate eating. I grew up in New Brunswick, Canada with a Methodist grandmother. She boiled everything. And all food tastes boiled to me.”
I sighed. “Well, I won’t bring leftovers. Goodbye, Nelly.” I placed my cell phone on the table. It looked like a mouse. I didn’t see any wriggling spots, and I guessed that was good.
I stood, approached the salad bar and my eyes widened at the sight of paprika scattered on the potato salad.
I learned that Nelly and her children lived above a tavern. Did the barflies, drowning their joys and sorrows in liquor, hear the screams of the children?
Did Caitlin, the middle child, scream the loudest?
In the picture, Caitlin had unruly dark hair like Matthew. But she was chubby, like Emily. She had a pale complexion, pale gray in the microfiche copy. She wore a faded polka-dot sundress, and she looked like a perverse version of Shirley Temple, the perfect daughter for a notorious female artist, with numerous lovers, and a father for each of her three children. Caitlin’s father was said to be a famous poet, Irish. He drank a lot, and died of a heart attack on his thirtieth birthday. Alcohol, and Nelly, probably made his heart weak.
The sob sister said that Caitlin liked to draw pictures of kittens and puppies. I spent my sophomore year in England, and saw one of Nelly’s paintings in a small gallery in Manchester. The painting showed a kitten with stiffly spiked, neon-orange fur. His blue eyes stared ahead, glistening with fear, posed to strike back like a stabber. To be frank, I hated the painting at first. The menace was too obvious; I preferred Nelly’s self-portrait, with her complexion as soft as blossoms, her blue eyes as cold and pessimistic as a Dostoyevsky novel. She was a beautiful orchid, about to wither.
After the color-theory class, I took the subway to Nelly’s loft. The sky had darkened, turned to a fat, sluggish gray. It thundered in the distance and raindrops fell on my forehead as I ran inside. Trudging up the four flights of stairs, I heard Lena Horne singing, “Stormy Weather.” Her high, delicate voice gleamed like silver. I heard God tell me the song was ironic.
Nelly stood near a blanket on the floor. She wore a blue jersey shirt now, with a leather miniskirt and combat boots. She was smoking, as usual, and nicotine stained her thin fingers. I stripped and disrobed, reclined on the blanket. My cock wasn’t acting up this time. Nelly told me to part my legs. She started taking pictures, the soles of her boots making muffled steps on the blanket. I placed my hands behind my neck, my elbows almost touching the ground. The blanket smelled of sweat. And had paint streaked all over it. But I felt comfortable anyway.
“Were you always interested in photography?” I asked. “I liked Man Ray and Ansel Adams. But I never wanted to be a photographer.”
Nelly rose, blue eyes dark in the dimness of the loft. “Same thing with me,” she said. “I used to hate photography. I thought that it was too technical—and too easy.”
“Two forms of bullshit,” I said. Nelly nodded in agreement, before she took another picture. “Stormy Weather” stopped playing on the phonograph. Thunder then rolled outside, loud enough to drown the noise of traffic. Nelly stood again. She held the camera against her thin hip.
“But I want to be real now,” she said. “God knows that I’m sick of fantasy.”
“I agree.” I covered my cock with my hands. Nelly smiled and took one last picture.
I decided to lie, with an omission.
“I’m taking a photography class next semester.”
Nelly frowned. “Why?”
She nodded. “That’s your final semester. You should be partying, using drugs.”
“Dan, I’ll be blunt,” Nelly said. “I like your prick. It reminds me of Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo was probably a fag. He knew about pricks.”
“My mother wanted to name me David,” I said. “After my dad. But my father convinced her not to. It would have been confusing—and I’m not a Junior.”
“True.” Nelly walked to her desk and put her camera down, she picked up a pack of Lucky Strikes. “I have early emphysema. The doctor wants me to quit. I gotta stop seeing that asshole.” She sighed. “Pierre never smoked.”
“Pierre?” I asked. “Your husband?”
Nelly nodded. “But he’s in Hell now. God works in strange ways. I like how He works.” She ripped the cellophane off the pack of cigarettes.
“Can I have one smoke?” I asked, as I stood up.
Nelly threw me a mock frown. “No way. You have to stay innocent.” She slipped a cigarette between her lips. “God knows I’m not innocent.” She started to smoke, as rain pealed against the roof of the building. I told Nelly that God was pissing on the city.
“True,” she mumbled. “And he shits on the country.” I laughed, and told myself to get home, before I caused trouble.
In late 1994, before she became depressed, Mother became angry at Father. We were shopping at the local Pathmark, and Father, tall and boyish as usual, gazed at the Hispanic checkout girl. He fluttered his big brown eyes. The girl, a bleached blonde, gazed back, her shapely mouth parted.
It was like a scene from a romantic movie.
“That’ll be $149.95,” the girl said, trying to sound uninterested in my father. Father blushed, and fumbled his Visa out of his wallet.
“Children,” said Mother, “put the bags in the trunk.” She screeched more shrilly than usual. Matthew, Rachel, and me waited to hear another one of her harangues.
Father drove down the Long Island Expressway, toward Beach Meadows, our subdivision in Atlantic Beach. On the radio, Billy Joel sang that it was his life. Mother slunk in her passenger’s seat, and for once, Matt and Rachel remained silent.
“What a trashy woman,” she scolded. “Her mother’s probably younger than you are—those ghetto women pop out babies at twelve. You’re always embarrassing me like that.”
Father remained quiet, trying not to talk back.
“I never want to see that again,” Mother said. “You understand?”
Father was still the little boy. He didn’t respond to Mother in time.
“Understand?” Mother repeated. “I hate hearing myself talk.” Matt snickered, and I expected Mother to pick up a strap and beat him along with Dad.
Father continued to drive, silently. Mother grumbled. “I don’t understand you, Dave. I don’t understand any of you.” Her voice was now soft and broken, as if she was about to cry. She looked back, gazed at me with small black eyes. They looked overwhelmed by her doughy face. Mother hated the fact I liked Wagner. Hated Matt’s preference for girls in the ghetto, instead of girls at the synagogue. And she hated Rachel’s prettiness, thinness. Father was Mother’s fourth child. Maybe she believed in him the way she never believed in us. She smiled at me. Rachel, who was eating candy corn, must have noticed the smile.
“Mom’s making goo-goo eyes,” she cracked. Matt snickered again; I slapped his thigh. Mother’s eyes returned to their normal hardness.
“Fresh mouth!” she said. Matt and Rachel were able to ridicule my mother. The world loved them, and they didn’t need Mother’s love. But I stared at her. I turned pale; all the blood seemed to siphon from my lank body. Father drove off the highway. The Billy Joel song ended. Carole King now sang, about the earth moving underneath her feet. The incessant boogie of the piano filled the cabin. I realized Mother would love me the way she used to love Father. The love would hurt, like the love in old novels. I was her son. I couldn’t escape Mother’s love. I could stay silent, go crazy, or hate women.
And all my actions would be useless. After the photography session, I sat outside Nelly’s building, and let the rain soak my clothes. My hair clung to my scalp and I could smell the dirt in it. It smelled sour, like vinegar. God’s words were a muffle now. I held the article, about Matthew and Caitlin and Emily. Matthew, the eldest, was eight years old. Nelly had made him baby-sit his sisters. He was probably warming a bottle for the baby, when something caught fire, burned out of control. The article said that the fire started in the kitchen. The rain grew fierce and I heard the door crack open. I smelled tobacco. Rain continued to fall in the black night. I heard footsteps behind, the front door of the building cracking open. I smelled tobacco in the wetness of the air.
“Daniel!” Nelly cried. “Why are you out here, in the rain?” I blinked, watching Nelly stand in front of me.
“You’re like Pierre,” she said. “Pierre was a nutcase, basically. He liked the rain.” She was about to stuff her hands in her slick yellow mackintosh. But she noticed the article in my hand. Ink slid off the soggy page.
“Are you creating art?” she asked. “That’s a good reason to act strange.”
I continued to blink. Nelly slipped her hands in her mackintosh pockets. “Dan?” she asked. “What’s the matter? Are you in love? I’ve never been in love, but I can imagine how it fucks you over.”
“Did you meet a man at the Carter Bar?” I asked. “On Houston Street? I know about the kids.” I looked up, noticing the sea of wrinkles and crags on Nelly’s face, like storm drains. Nelly became pallid, her lips quivered. The sob sister’s purple words became red when she mentioned the Carter Bar, and Nelly drinking under the table with Jackson Pollock. She called Pollock’s abstract-expressionist paintings “savage.” Nelly was a “notoriously decadent” artist. The children were innocent, darling. Thank God that He took them away from the cruel world. The cruel mother.
“Yes,” Nelly answered. “With Jackson Pollock. He was famous by then—and he didn’t want to fuck me.” She smirked. “He preferred women who didn’t look like Abe Lincoln.” Nelly did resemble Abe Lincoln, a small, lemon-blonde version. “What’s your article about?”
She tried to touch the soggy paper, and I pulled it back.
Nelly shook her head, coughed again.
“Your girlfriend wrote it?” she asked.
I shook my head, and tried not to think about Rosalind.
“Nelly,” I then asked, “didn’t Caitlin like to draw cats?”
“Caitlin Thomas?” Nelly asked. “God, I hated her! Dylan Thomas was a great poet, but a pig of a man. And his wife wasn’t much better.” She looked like she believed her lie. The lie lasted for a few moments. She then looked back, watching a car drive down the narrow street. She looked at me again. Looked down, the dying orchid.
And I understood why. I continued to talk about the kids.
Nelly looked up again. Her face looked hard. You could see some of her wrinkles straighten out.
“I hated motherhood,” she said. “I had three babies, but I hated the childbirth, the dirty diapers. I hated baby shit.” She smiled, the same wistful, faded smile of her self-portrait. “I’m going to my friend’s house, in Brooklyn. Please, get out of this rain.”
“Yes,” I replied. When I stood up, my clothes clung to my body. Nelly gazed at me—a mother proud of her child. Her lips continued to quiver; she couldn’t say the truth. She could paint and photograph my genitals, but she could never recreate her children. Rosalind left me when she found out about my mental illness. I remembered crying on my mother’s shoulder. Mother caressed my back. She said she thank God she’d found Father. He stood by her, even in the darkest parts of her life. She was thanking Father, but caressing my back, like I was her lover. I was surprised she didn’t kiss me full on the mouth.
I liked how Nelly didn’t grieve. Back in the mental hospital, I learned psychotic depression was repressed anger. In college, I read biographies of great artists and writers. They all were angry at something. I watched Nelly amble across the street. The rain lessened; drizzle covered the streetlights, filling the pavement with an orange hue. I threw the article away. It sat on the gutter, without ink, starkly white. I felt the waves on my skin again. I imagined the seashore. I would go home, take my medication, and step out of the water.
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