A visiting artist,lecturer and a widower meets an young female artist at risk.
SEAN DINEEN liked that nervous feeling just before appearing in a large auditorium to discuss his life as a political cartoonist and the successful film based on his work. Perhaps he had quit too soon since the current political race was a hot one, and his first novel had done poorly. There was also the nagging question of why he hadn’t written a graphic novel, the new rage.
Sean Dineen’s recent article attacking Andy Warhol and the pop art movement earned him enough notoriety to promote a college tour. The thin willowy Warhol had survived a gunshot wound from a crazed follower only to die after a botched routine operation. Made famous by his painting of a Campbell Soup can and the factory where he did experimental films, Warhol’s image of the pop artist celebrity still lingered. Sean Dineen had dared to question Andy Warhol’s artistic credentials.
Sean heard the introduction and when his name was called, he walked out onto the stage of this modest Idaho University. He heard applause and the spotlight caught the whiteness of his still thick curly hair. Sean Dineen had lost weight but was lifting weights for muscle tone. Some of his cartoons came up on a screen. He knew they had lost their punch with the passage of time, satires on candidates long out of office or forgotten. Sean was relieved when a few students laughed.
“I’m not a real artist,” he said, “I just illustrate. Picasso was an artist. There is something anarchistic about a political cartoon, however. We can take great liberties and avoid law suits.”
As he spoke, he noticed the students were quieter. A few held copies of Warhol’s soup can. Sean waited for them to bring up the house lights so he could take questions, his favorite part of the college circuit. The audience was large and stared back at him, like a gigantic living painting. A young attractive woman with blonde hair fringed with purple watched him intensely.
“I realize my work is a bit dated,” Sean said, “but aren’t the political cartoons of Lincoln’s time fascinating? Maybe a few of mine will have historical value. Any questions?”
A bearded professor he had met that afternoon raised his hand. He also had white hair but was short and portly.
“I am puzzled,” he said, holding a copy of The New Yorker. “You tell us you’re not an artist but you are a pop artist.”
“I’m a pop artist?”
“You are, and here you attack the man who practically created pop art.”
“I guess that’s true .”
“Of course it’s true . In your article, you diminish Warhol’s value as an artist.”
“That’s because I feel pop art has lower standards.”
Sean could feel the students and faculty observing him. He wondered if Pricilla and Rachel were hovering somewhere, waiting for the confrontation.
“I think Warhol was more of a colorful personality. He created some new concepts, but admitted his art wasn’t all that original or complex. Anyone can take a photo of Marilyn Monroe and make it into a silk screen.”
“Warhol did it first,” the professor insisted.
“Correct. He did it first. He created a commodity. Any good advertising illustrator could paint a realistic Campbell Soup can, but that doesn’t mean it’s an artistic interpretation, like Van Gogh’s flowers, for instance. To me, even though maybe I’m a pop artist, I regard Warhol as a minor if influential blip on 20th century art. The Hammer and Sickle series is good, but neither Warhol nor Dineen will exhibit at the Louvre.”
“You may not exhibit, but you might be wrong about Warhol.”
“I might be, unfortunately.”
“Unfortunately? So you only admire so called ‘High Art’?”
Sean was about to answer when a student raised his hand.
“I like your stuff and I disagree that pop art is minor…and I think Warhol was great.”
Sean nodded and smiled. Then he shrugged.
“Look. I admire a lot of pop music. A few songwriters might even be great artists. Regarding painting and illustrations, I even like Andy Warhol as a cultural influence, but I just don’t buy him as a great artist. A serious artist has a talent that is developed into a skill and expresses a vision. Picasso was a great visionary artist. I don’t understand all of his Cubist stuff, but Guernica is devastating.”
He could feel a tension running through the audience. The professor stared at him.
“I put Picasso as the foremost artist of the first half the 20th century, and Warhol”—he looked around the crowded auditorium—“Andy Warhol owns the second half.”
The students and teachers applauded. Sean Dineen lowered his head. Then he looked at the professor.
“To me, that’s the Mark Twain-Carrot Top comparison.”
The air in the building seemed to contract as though the crowd suddenly drew in its collective breath.
“Hey,” another student suddenly yelled. “I think you’re full of shit.”
The auditorium rang with laughter followed by applause. Sean stood alone on the stage. The professor was grinning, now.
“Have you seen any new work, Mr. Dineen?”
“Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial,” mumbled Sean, quoting a Dylan lyric.
“What was that?”
“‘Yes, I have seen modern work.”
“I’ve seen a basketball in a fish tank called art. I’ve seen a cow in formaldehyde called art. I’ve seen bronzed balloon dogs sell for millions. I’ve seen Mickey Mouse with fangs. Something is wrong with that picture, no pun intended,” Sean insisted. “Art has become just another commercial market for commodities. For that, I blame Warhol.”
“Artists have a right to make money,” a third student shouted.
“True. Even a hack like me made a few bucks.”
The professor looked at Sean with a smug but confident humor.
“You have made a few bucks off pop art and you blame Warhol?” The professor wiped his shiny forehead. “Sir, with due apologies, you are an embarrassment to the art world if you misunderstand or are so blind to current modern art. We’ve gone beyond Picasso and Rembrandt and Michelangelo. Modern art is creating new forms. Warhol started it all. He is our prince and yours!”
There were more cheers, then applause. For a moment, Sean wondered what would happen if he smacked the fat pompous professor. The woman with purple-fringed hair raised her hand.
“What about Jackson Pollock? Is he minor?”
“I don’t understand Pollock but there is a method to his madness. Hey, what do I know? I’m a guy from New Jersey who got lucky.” He glanced at the students grinning back at him. “If you don’t have any questions, I have one. How far is it to Mexico?”
When he walked backstage, a tall young man with shaggy blonde hair and a bad complexion limply shook his hand.
“That was marvelous.”
“It was? They hated me.”
“But you got a discussion going. Half of them never heard of Andy Warhol.”
The young man handed him a check. Sean stepped into the foyer and watched a few students exiting the building. He noticed an announcement for a talk on grief: “Declan Mulligan will discuss the loss of his wife and how writing a journal of grief saved his life.”
Sean turned away.
What would he do had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have? Sean thought to himself, bagging a line from Hamlet. “I lost two women,” he said aloud. “Two!”
He felt embarrassed to be speaking to no one. A passing young woman smiled at him and walked on. Sean Dineen swallowed his daily aspirin and walked outside the large grey Performing Arts Center. It was raining. Sean had a good walk to the parking lot across from the school. He actually liked the rain and sometimes saw Rachel’s small but tight female figure walking toward him, her straight dark hair sun-streaked and shining, her eyes always merry in the handsome face much younger than her fifty years.
Boy, they nailed your ass, she might say, laughing. But you’re tough, Sean Dineen. Frankly, I’m not wild about Andy myself.
But Rachel’s ghost wasn’t walking toward him through the rain. Not tonight. For a moment, watching rain blow across the lawn, he wondered what Pricilla would have thought of the evening. She had always been tougher than Sean, with a defiant edge. Their life together had been full of wild times and brutal arguments leading to a divorce, but as she bravely faced her death from ovarian cancer, peace and plans were made. They had enjoyed discussing their memories, like seeing their son, Carson, marry in Paraguay. When death came, it wasn’t unexpected. Sean Dineen would continue to comfort her devastated husband.
Rachel’s death was sudden, the result of a drunk driver with many priors. He had driven the wrong way down a freeway and Rachel had turned out to pass. The drunk survived the accident. After the shock had passed and the deep black grief set in, Sean had even considered committing a crime so he could find the drunk in prison and slip a shiv between his ribs. Carson had saved him from that sick fantasy.
Sean, without an umbrella, began walking quickly toward his car.
“Mr. Dineen, wait!”
He turned, feeling the heavier rain now soaking through his light coat. The young woman with purple-fringed hair was running toward him. She wore striped pants and carried an umbrella.
“Let me walk you to your car,” she said.
They walked, the rain spattering on the open umbrella.
“I liked what you said, tonight. I also like Warhol, but we all have to move on.”
“You’re a painter?”
“Yes. My name is Samantha, but people call me Sami. Don’t mind Professor Heckler. He’s a pompous ass.”
“I don’t mind pompous asses. I’ve known a few hecklers in my time.” They came to the small rental car. “Thanks,” he said.
“I like your work,” Sami said. “Why don’t we talk some more? There’s a local boy who made good in Memphis and he’s playing at the brewpub on First Street.”
The rain was lighter and Sean looked at her handsome face in the street light. He could see a spider tattoo on her neck. She had high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and in profile, her face suggested a bird-like appearance.
“I’m old enough to be your father,” he said.
Sami reacted, clearly surprised. Then her eyes narrowed. “I am not a groupie. I am an artist and like to learn everything I can from other artists, particularly pros.”
“Thanks for calling me a pro.”
She wrote directions to the pub. “Show up if you feel like a beer and some live music.”
“You’re wrong about Warhol. He’s still important, but you may be right about commercialism taking over art.”
The rain stopped. He watched her walk quickly away closing the umbrella. She had long legs and prominent breasts and Sean wondered how he might have acted twenty years earlier. He called out. Sami stopped and turned. “What?”
“What do you paint? Portraits? Soup cans?”
Sami laughed. “I paint landscapes, but they’re not realistic nor are they surreal or abstract. Frankly, I don’t know what I paint.”
“Good,” Sean said. “Promising.”
Following her scribbled directions, he drove through the university town, finding a dark street in the warehouse district and a small brewpub with blues music coming through the partially open window. The street was bathed in the yellow light from the pub. A blue neon sign read “Open.” He could see the band from the back and people sitting at tables, and beyond, a distant bar. When Sean walked up stairs and inside, the music was suddenly louder with a stocky black female singer belting out a raunchy number: “I’m in the blues bidnez, and bidnez is good.”
Huge tanks for the homemade brew were visible through a window, and the red brick walls had signatures of musicians. Sean walked past a tall lean older man wearing jeans and a Levi jacket; the man was pressed against the wall and watching the band. He wore round spectacles like John Lennon, and had brown hair streaked with grey. Like Sean, he carried a slight paunch with the advancing years.
Sean looked around the tavern and saw Sami sitting at a table with friends. They were young, and Sean knew he would soon feel out of place, but he made his way toward the table through the dancers and spectators. Overhead bulbs caught highlights in the blonde-purple border of Sami’s hair.
“This is Sean Dineen,” Sami said. “He spoke at the school.”
The others nodded and briefly shook his hand. The blues band broke into another lively number and the music swept over the patrons sitting and eating pizza, drinking beer or just listening. Conversation became impossible. Then a rugged looking man in his mid thirties stepped to the mic and sang a song about the Mexican guides called “coyotes” who often led immigrants to their death in the desert. He had a deep voice, and the song had a country flavor. The female singer now played saxophone. When the song ended, Sean was impressed.
“He’s good,” he said.
“That’s Dexter Flanagan. He’ll be big songwriter, someday. Glad someone from this tank town has a shot. I sometimes I think I’ll die here.”
“No matter where you are, all artists are vulnerable,” Sean said. “I gambled everything away. I lost my wife and even my child for a while. Then after a reconciliation, my ex died.”
He saw Sami watching him, her blouse cut low, her eyes focused. She knew how to flirt and yet keep a distance. “I know,” she said. “I checked your biography. I’m sorry.”
Flanagan began a twelve bar Jimmy Reed blues, playing guitar under a high-pitched wailing harmonica. It was the kind of primitive blues that could resonant with a person’s inner needs and desires. They didn’t talk over the music, and Sean Dineen wondered if Sami also read about Rachel, a woman he met at the zoo who gave him a second chance at love and died tragically. He imagined Rachel sitting next to him, leaning against his shoulder, moving with the music. Flanagan then sang a poignant love song about two lovers who were doomed by conditions beyond their control. It reminded Sean of “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. A striking-looking woman with auburn hair stood up and applauded, wiping away tears.
The tall man in Levis watched the band intently, and Sean suspected he was a musician. Though he didn’t smile, he obviously understood and felt the vibrant music. Occasionally, he glanced at the crowd. Sean saw something in the eyes that disturbed him. Their table was now surrounded by patrons. People had trouble walking to the back of the brewpub with its narrow bottleneck corridor by the bar.
Suddenly, Sami was holding his hands. The others ignored him, watching the band. One young woman got up to dance.
“Tell me,” said Sami. “Do you have an agent?”
“Yes. He’s a pain in the ass but knows his stuff.”
“Do I need one?”
“Everyone usually needs one,” said Sean. “But I don’t know I can help you find one,” he quickly added.
Sami released his hands and sipped her beer.
“Maybe I should leave town.”
“Get a showing,” Sean said. “Then get a showing in a bigger place like Sun Valley. Then apply at a school like Yale or Harvard. They are giving away scholarships and tuition if you’re poor.”
Sami shrugged. “Yale? I wish. But I am poor.”
“After Yale, hitchhike to New York and paint a Campbell Soup can.”
He liked the sound of Sami’s laughter. “It’s been done,” she said.
“I’m thinking of a Warhol experiment,” Sean said. “I’m going to photograph dogs’ asses and turn the dog butts into silkscreen images. After following the master, my fame will be assured.” He lifted his glass of beer in a salute.
“You may have something, there,” Sami said.
“Then I will start on my portraits of kitty asses.”
Sami laughed again. After a soft ballad, the woman singer took over for another suggestive blues, Dexter Flanagan playing lead guitar. She held the microphone and began to wail with a Janis Joplin abandon. Dancers crowded the small space before the band. A short older woman suddenly grabbed the tall man in Levis and pulled him toward the dance floor. He shook his head and pulled way. The woman swayed once and tugged at him again. Suddenly, the stranger pushed her away and bolted down the stairs and out into the street. Sean watched the scene and Sami said, “That’s Declan Mulligan. He now teaches communication. He also lost a wife some years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He won’t dance with me, either.”
Without replying, Sean forced his way past the spectators and dancers and headed toward the exit. He saw Declan walking down the street and called out to him. The man turned and took a step toward him in the yellow light. “Do I know you?”
“No, you don’t. Listen, I’ve been there. I couldn’t dance for a long time, either.”
“I saw you back away from the woman who wanted to dance with you. I understand, Mr. Mulligan. Dancing was a kind of phobia for me until my son said, ‘Dad, get over it.’”
Declan Mulligan advanced another step. “You know me. Who the hell are you?”
“A friend. I saw you bolt from the joint and—”
“Bolt? Maybe it was just time to go.”
“Maybe. But I saw something in your eyes that I’ve seen in mine.”
“Really?” The two men stood, regarding each other. “You always study and confront strangers?”
“You got a name?”
“Sean Dineen. Listen, I lost an ex wife and a lover.” For a moment, Declan Mulligan’s expression softened. Sean continued: “You talked about grief tonight, right?”
“Yeah, I did. And you discussed cartoons. Now go back inside and have a ball.”
Declan began walking down the street. Sean called out again: “Tomorrow, I’ll be having breakfast at the Holiday Inn. Join me.”
Sean turned and saw Sami swaying in the doorway, smoking and holding a beer. Sami shouted:
“Don’t leave us, Mulligan. We’re gonna boogie, tonight!”
Declan paused and turned and walked back toward the tavern. The music had picked up with a fast blues. Sean could see lines in Declan’s face and the eyes were clear and penetrating behind the circular glasses. Declan regarded Sami, who slipped and caught herself.
“One too many beers,” she said.
Declan gave a mock salute and said, “See you at the art gallery.” He walked away without looking back.
“Say hello to the Duck Lady!” Sami screamed. Sean caught her as she stumbled again.
“Sami? Maybe we should go inside and sit down.”
“Sure. Maybe you’d like to dance.”
Sean looked down the dark street but Declan Mulligan had disappeared. The band paused for a break and Sean followed Sami to their table.
“I guess you’ve spent time with Mr. Mulligan?”
“He was a kind of mentor.”
“Who’s the Duck Lady? She owns ducks?”
“She owns ducks, she breeds ducks, and she looks like a duck.”
“I like ducks,” Sean said.
Sami put her fingers under his chin and held his eyes.
“Maybe Mr. Mulligan can’t dance, but he has no problem with other things, if you catch my drift.”
“This is a bit delicate, but isn’t Mr. Mulligan a tad old for you?”
Sami looked away. “I like older men,” she said, “particularly artistic older men.”
Sami turned to study his face and then suddenly laughed, slapping his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I won’t hit on you.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“You know, I’m not sure I approve of teachers sleeping with students.”
“Who says Mulligan was my teacher or that we were sleeping, together?”
A young man at the table was watching Sami and she returned his stare. “I wanna boogie, tonight,” she said. “Let’s get drunk and boogie! Bring your girlfriend.”
The band started playing and Sami joined the others in a slam dance. Sean sipped his wine. He knew the festive bar scene would soon begin to depress him. It still happened with large crowds, a feeling of isolation amid cheer and talking heads. Of course, the blues band was good and he could easily lose himself in good blues. A little wine always helped with depression, but too much alcohol brought back demons and with the demons, nightmares. He had been told by a therapist that falling in love with another woman would ease his grief, but that hadn’t happened since, and he knew he wasn’t ready for that to happen.
Sean got up and walked through the crowd to the back dining room. He stepped out onto a porch and saw the distant train tracks and a train pulling out, heading west. Sean thought about the depression days and traveling troubadours like Woody Guthrie. Would those hungry days come back? A few patrons sat on the porch or leaned on the railing smoking and drinking. Sean was glad no one smoked inside the brewpub. Then he saw Mr. Heckler, holding a beer.
“Mr. Dineen, I admire your work. Good political satire, a fine movie about modern love, and I liked your novel.”
“No one else did,” Sean said. “But thanks.”
“I am sorry I was so rough on you, but the students loved it. I admit Warhol isn’t the only great pop artist, but they may pay more attention to Warhol’s work, now.”
The professor smiled, his teeth bright against the beard. “I liked the lead actress in your film. She’s good.”
“Lovely person,” Sean said.
“You ever score with her?”
“No.” Sean noticed some steps leading to an alley. “Where does that alley lead?”
“It leads to the side street. You can exit without anyone seeing you if you like.”
“I could use a walk,” Sean said.
“See you in the funny papers,” the professor said.
Sean left his drink and walked down the stairs and out toward the street. The band had broken into a faster blues-jazz number. Sean walked by the window and saw the silhouetted backs of the musicians as they played to the dancing joyful crowd. He continued walking to his rental car and drove to the Holiday Inn. It would be nice to relax in his quiet L-shaped room, resting in silence with no distractions. First, he stopped in the Inn bar but it was smoky so he bought a small bottle of wine and went to his room. On the dresser was a picture of him and Rachel on a Mexican beach. It showed a laughing couple in love. It was one of those happy moments captured on film, a tribute and a mocking reminder of paradise lost.
He poured a drink of white wine and 7 Up. He drank, sitting on the bed, looking at the western-themed art on the wall that resembled so many pictures on walls in motels and hotels across the country. Oddly enough, he took comfort in the uniform sameness of motel and hotel rooms. Of course, Rachel would not be sleeping with him, tonight, and he would not hear her hair dryer in the morning.
You still have your son and great memories of Rachel and feisty old Pricilla, and you have a book out, he thought. And a movie about the tragedy of romantic love.
“What a laugh,” he said aloud. “What do I know about romantic love?”
Sean wasn’t sure what to make of Sami. She was the kind of woman he would have pursued twenty years before, but now she seemed part of another world, and there was something dangerous and sad about her. Perhaps if Declan Mulligan showed up for breakfast, he would ask him about her. And he would buy and read his book. Declan Mulligan knew grief and Sean Dineen knew grief and there was nothing to completely cure it except death.
But if there’s no grief, then it wasn’t worth much to start with, he thought.
He drank another glass of wine and then went to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, he woke up. It had happened often and then he had the choice of simply lying there in the bed or watching the early morning news shows at three AM. He turned on the television. Congress had finally passed a bill to rescue the nation’s credit after bad loans had ruined Wall Street. At one time, Sean Dineen the revolutionary would have rejoiced at the death of Capitalism. Now he worried about his retirement funds.
He thought of pouring another drink but decided not to.
Just lie down in bed and wait until first light, he thought.
Then he heard a tapping on the front door. Perhaps security felt his TV was too loud. Sean pulled on his pants and went to the front door and peered through the view finder; Sami’s face suddenly came into focus, her eyes blinking. He opened the door.
“What the hell happened to you?” she demanded. “When did you sneak away?”
She was swaying on her feet.
“I just felt uncomfortable so I left. Come in.”
She followed him into the spacious front room. “I need another drink,” she said.
“You need some coffee,” Sean insisted.
“Then you’ll have a wide awake drunk.” She flopped on the sofa.
“What are you doing here, Sami? You realize what time it is?”
“I knew you’d be up.” She took out a cigarette and then put it away. “My heart is broken, Sean Dineen, and I hate Idaho.”
Sean sat next to her. “There’ll be others,” he said.
Sami saw the wine bottle and took a swig. There was little left.
“I need to blow this town,” she said. “And why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”
“You were having fun. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket.”
She looked into his face. “And just why are you up so late?”
“I get insomnia,” he said.
“I’m sure you do. Look, I need to talk to someone who knows art.”
“I don’t know art.”
“Bullshit.” Sami shook her head. “You are a cartoonist, and their art is just as important as the stuff hanging in Paris galleries. And I need personal guidance.”
“Personal guidance from me? You need to get some sleep.”
He looked at the young woman’s face, slack and bleary eyed, the blonde hair still bright under the light. Sami grinned at him.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” She touched his face. He saw something appear in her eyes, a lascivious glance suggesting hidden desire. “You want to sleep with me, professor?”
“I’m an old dog.”
“So what? You have that ‘haven’t been laid in six months’ look.”
“A lot longer than that.”
“Poor baby.” Sami saw the photo on the table. She picked it up and studied it. “What a beautiful woman. This is the one who was killed?”
She put the photo back on the table. “I’m so sorry.” After a moment, she said, “You can’t dwell on the past.”
“I try not to.”
Sami lay back on the sofa and gently rubbed his thigh. “Maybe you need some loving.”
“Maybe you need some sober time alone.”
“Alone?” She sat up. “Are you rejecting me too, Mr. Dineen? Huh?”
She stretched and Sean saw she wasn’t wearing a bra as her blouse opened.
“Lie down. I’ll get you a blanket,” he said.
“I don’t want a blanket. I want another drink.”
“I am out of liquor,” he told her. He went to the closet to find an extra blanket. “Who rejected you? You’re very attractive and I’m sure talented, so who would reject you? A student? A professor?”
He could hear her voice in the other room. “What difference does it make? Hey, maybe you could sketch me.”
“Maybe I could.”
Sean Dineen went to his large bag by the side of the bed and found his sketch pad. Perhaps it was a good idea to sketch this lost soul for a future cartoon or story. He had often thought of creating a book of sketches of people he had met on the road. He also wondered what it would be like to sleep with this young vibrant woman, even if she was drunk. It had been a long time and he felt the need for sex even if he still feared intimacy. Sean came into the room and saw Sami had removed her blouse. She followed his eyes and cupped her breasts.
“Maybe you could sketch me nude, old timer.”
Sami winked at him and started cackling.
“Maybe I don’t do nudes,” he said.
He tossed her the blanker which she pulled up, lying back on the sofa. Sean could feel an unexplained anger.
“I don’t mean to be rude.” Sean heard a deep theatrical sigh. “Mr. Dineen. Why am I so messed up?”
“It could be self pity.”
“No, it isn’t self pity. You talk like that and you won’t get laid.”
“Neither will you.”
Sami laughed, and then she peered at him over the blanket. “I got enough men in my life.”
“I bet you do.”
“Get me some water— please?”
Sean walked to the bathroom sink just beyond the queen size bed.
“Maybe you need to relax, Sami,” he said. “Dry out, find some nice little country retreat, and just paint. Don’t worry about great art. You could also use a good counselor. I still see a therapist.”
He didn’t hear a response. When Sean returned, Sami had fallen asleep. Her face was beautiful in repose. He pulled up the blanket to her chin and sketched her face quickly. Then he turned off the light and went to bed to lie there in the semi darkness, waiting for sleep. Sometime later, he woke up and saw Sami walking toward the bathroom, wearing only panties, her breasts and lovely curving hips visible in the light from the parking lot. He could hear her gagging behind the closed door, and then she came out and walked by his bed. Eyes closed, he felt her watching his face. Would she slip under the covers and violently make love to him, releasing all the tension of his two year sexual drought? Later in the dead of night, perhaps her boyfriend would show up and pull a gun demanding money; Sean would realize the whole scene was a ploy to rob him, but he would disarm the punk and break his jaw while Sami sat up, watching with shock and even a little sexual arousal.
It was a nice fantasy but Sami groaned and walked to the couch, a fleeting apparition. Sean closed his eyes again and waited for sleep or dawn, whichever came first. When he woke in the morning, he noticed that Sami had pulled the blanket over her face and body. Sean wondered if Sami was faking sleep but then he heard her deep breathing. It was the breathing of exhaustion. Sean closed the door, brushed his teeth, showered and dressed. Sean then examined his sketch, signed it and placed it on a chair near the sofa. He left the room to have coffee and breakfast downstairs. When he came back, it would take little time to pack and they could talk then, if she was awake. For the first time, Sean wondered what her art looked like.
The dining room of the Holiday Inn had that uniform sameness he had grown to expect. The first cup of coffee was wonderful, and after ordering breakfast, he studied some of the other dining patrons. A few were families traveling through, and others were dressed like rodeo cowboys. He had not seen any notice of a rodeo, however. As he finished breakfast, he looked up to see if Sami had come down looking for him. Instead, he saw the tall intense spectator from the night before approaching his table. Declan Mulligan was close to his age, the hair veined with gray, the face and eyes behind round glasses reflecting the pain of one who suffered some hidden loss.
Declan sat down and ordered coffee. Then he regarded Sean. “So how long has it been?”
“Nearly three years since I lost my beloved Rachel, and six months since I lost my ex wife, Pricilla, the mother of my son. And you?”
“I lost Kate, my wife, three years ago. It was sudden. As you know, grief goes in cycles, it’s not linear. We have no choice but to endure as each cycle comes around. Grief can’t be cured.”
They began to talk about a subject they knew well. Others watching them at the table might think they were brothers meeting after a reunion. Sean told Declan about Rachel and Pricilla and Declan listened carefully. Declan then spoke in detail about the day he suddenly lost Kate. Both men enjoyed remembering their lost loves.
“Dante’s description of hell is quite vivid,” Declan said, “but hell doesn’t come in such a dramatic fashion. It happens on a nice Indian Summer morning in September when you get a phone call that changes your life.”
“Or a young smooth-cheeked cop knocks on your door in late afternoon, around dinner time.”
“It seems to happen on routine days.” Declan looked around the restaurant. “Kate and I had a cat we loved. It liked blues harmonica and I used to play guitar with the mouth harp in a neck holder, and the cat would go crazy. Then Missy died in my arms and we finally got a new cat. Kate loved her and named her Karma as in ‘good karma.’ Karma managed to help us forget the wonderful cat named Missy.” Sean could hear a catch in Declan’s voice. “The second cat outlived Kate.”
“You still have Karma?”
“Yes. A great cat, but she doesn’t like blues harmonica.”
“Can’t have everything,” Sean said.
“Kate played solitaire in the morning,” Declan said. “The cards from her last game are still laid out on the table. I guess I’m waiting for her to come back and finish the game. Life is hard, buddy. Grief is hard. We have to simply keep on keepin’ on.”
Sean looked across the table at Declan. “You are a depressing son of a bitch, you know that?”
“I am,” Declan said, smiling for the first time. “We both have dark Celtic genes.” He finished his coffee. “Have you sold your house?”
“No. Why would I do that?”
“I found the house I shared with Kate to be a comfort, at first, but now it occasionally feels like a museum. Still, I won’t sell it and move to a different place.”
“Make the house more your house. I’m fine where I am,” insisted Sean.
The waitress poured more coffee.
“Speaking of museums, I hear Professor Heckler and some students attacked your attack on Warhol.”
“I’ve met people like Heckler before,” Sean said. “He’s a showboat. Are you a Warhol fan?”
“It’s all subjective. I either like a painting or I don’t. I do know the Impressionists move me. The post modern movement has some artists I like, but others leave me cold and I can’t say why.”
“What does that mean, ‘Post Modern’?”
“I guess it’s a combination of high and low art.”
“I’m a cartoonist,” said Sean. “Therefore, I represent low art?”
“Perhaps. But don’t discount popular art. Mozart and Shakespeare were popular. I don’t study Warhol, but I find his work innovative…and even dead, he still makes millions off jeans, shoes and perfume.”
“Good for him. Business…the new art.”
Declan seemed amused, but a moment later, he turned serious.
“Warhol is gone and we’re talking about him.Who will talk about us after we get our fifteen minutes of fame?”
“Maybe you should care. Why not start another comic strip?”
“I’ve thought of it.”
For a moment, both men were silent. “You fly out today?”
“Travel can help treat grief. Or work. Prescription drugs can blunt it. Alcohol can smother it for a while, but then it gets worse and you can’t work. Another treatment is to fall in love again,” Declan said. “I know a few who have.”
“It hasn’t happened for me. Maybe it has for you?”
“Not the Duck Lady?”
Declan laughed. “You’ve been talking to that sad but talented drunk, Sami.”
“The Duck Lady is a ‘friend with benefits.’ I tolerate her ducks but we’re not in love.”
Sean finished his coffee and slipped his credit card in with the bill.
“You’ve never slept with Sami?”
Declan seemed surprised and annoyed. “She’s talented and lovely but needs a therapist, not another lecherous old man. I think Sami needs to sober up, live in Paris to just paint and find compassionate lovers—preferably Irish.”
It was Sean’s turn to laugh. They walked to the cash register where Sean signed the statement and retrieved his card. A few guests had gathered in the lobby, including a visiting Amish family.
“Sami is upstairs in my room,” Sean said. “She knocked on my door, last night, quite drunk.”
Declan didn’t seem surprised, this time. “Did you sleep with her?”
“She has a beautiful young body…but no.”
“I see. You’re a man of honor.”
“She has much baggage,” Declan said. He handed Sean a book. It was his journal of sorrow called The Grief That Does Not Speak. It was signed.
“Thank you, Declan. I will need this, I’m sure.”
“I hope it’s a source of comfort and a tribute to Kate. There is light between the cycles. Say hello to Sami. I’ll try to watch out for her. And contact me if you drive back through. We’re very much alike.” Declan shook his hand. “Some days are better than others. You have your son, at least. Kate’s children bring me comfort.”
“I will stay in touch,” said Sean, suddenly feeling a hollowness inside. “It still hurts for you?”
“Every day. But we have to carry on. Kate would want that for me. Rachel and Pricilla would want that for you. We are at that age when we’ll start losing friends. Take care of yourself and good luck.”
“Good luck to you.”
They embraced. Declan nodded and walked through the lobby. Then Sean walked to the elevator and took it to the second floor and his room. When he opened the door, his sketch and Sami were gone. She had left a note on a post card.
“I’m so sorry for breaking in on you. Don’t think too badly of me. And thanks for the flattering sketch. I will send a painting to you. Please stay in touch. This can’t be the ending. We must meet again on the avenue, tangled up in blue. Love, Sami.”
Sami had added her e mail. Sean turned over the post card. It was a photo of Andy Warhol’s soup can. He stared at the familiar image, waiting for it to move.