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FLYING POINT, LONG ISLAND
There are few things emptier than the space where a Christmas tree used to be. At least, that’s what Annie always says. If my lovely girl had her way, we’d have a tree all year long and the white lights strung out on the deck. When I was younger, I’d swim out at sunset and see Venus and the stars above and that rope of lights guiding me home, luminous as pearls on the dark throat of the bay. When we walked the dogs along the beach at night, she’d take my hand or loop her arm around my waist. Gabe, she’d say, look, it’s like our own galaxy on the shore.
Plenty are surprised by this home of ours. They expect the great man to have something grander, but they don’t see I have everything I ever dreamed of here. I have the clear light of the sea spilling in through the square open doors to the barn where I work, and I have Annie. One summer I paid a bunch of boys to come up from Pennsylvania to raise the barn for me—it’s an old red colonial, with a hipped roof and doors that open wide to the north. I need space to work, to spread my canvases, but Annie never wanted a studio. When I offered to build her one, she said, “What do I want with that?” She just set up a little table off the kitchen, facing the wall. She says she likes to be in the middle of things, so the kids can come and go as she sews her beautiful clothes. Her work’s in collections across the country, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her with her head bent over her embroidery. There’s always a dog sitting at her feet and a cat curled up in the warmth of the lamplight beside her as she sews. First it was our own kids, and now there’s always one grandchild or another in the high chair beside her or playing with their bricks or dolls on the floor and the radio singing away in the background. Maybe that’s why people love her art—each stitch pulses and shines with life. My paintings scare people, intimidate them. They are big and intense, just right for uncompromising white-box galleries and soaring corporate atriums. I know which I’d rather live with. Over time people confused me with my paintings. Here’s something I’ve learned—if you do good work, make it to my age, and keep your trap shut, you become a reclusive genius. I like my reputation, play up to it: the enigmatic old man of abstraction. People are afraid to ask too many questions, which suits me just fine. Only the bravest bother me out here. I glance over at the girl’s letter on the table. Only the boldest find me.
My cup of coffee’s grown cold as I rock the child in my arms and look out to sea. I’m listening to Billie Holiday singing “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” on my 1959 Magnavox Imperial, and Lady Day’s voice is dancing up among the rafters with the angels, the Calder mobile swinging with the tune as it rises into the air like bubbles in pure water. This song is Annie’s favorite, and she always has a mischievous glint in her eye, singing along softly as we dance, our bare feet shuffling on the sandy deck overlooking the sea. My wife knows me well. I’ve lied about plenty in my life, but I never lied about loving her.
I love this time of year, too, always have. There’s nothing like an empty beach for me, with the dazzling white sand, the sea turning to winter swells, and the pure blue sky above you. I can breathe here. Every day I wake feeling like the first man on earth, with his Eve at his side. After Labor Day, once all the fancy cottages along the dunes close down for the season and their topiary is tied up in its dust sheets for the winter, Annie and I kick off our shoes, get our toes in the sand, and take a walk down to our beach. We build a bonfire, grill a fish or two, and toast another summer’s passing with a glass of Chardonnay. Annie doesn’t drink much, but those nights she curls up under an old plaid blanket, and her cheeks flush, and she talks freely about the past, our life, and the future like the girl I met used to when we walked in the woods at Air-Bel like children in a fairy tale.
I am a contented man. This is all I wish for my children. I gave them each enough to help them start out in life, but not so much that they didn’t have to work at it. Too much ease can ruin you; that’s what I’ve always thought when I look at some of the kids of wealthy folks I’ve known. You lose your edge. I didn’t want the kids to struggle as Annie and I did, but the rest I quietly gave away. If some fool banker wants to pay my dealers a million bucks for one of my early abstracts, then let him. Hell, I am the Robin Hood of the art world. There are plenty more folks in the world need the money more than we do, and I have so much to be thankful for in this life that I’ve had, this good and simple life I don’t deserve.
Copyright © 2016 by Kate Lord Brown