Study for a Final Canvas

Andy didn’t get up so early ordinarily. It was just one of those things. Forty minutes later, or if the morning had been five degrees colder and he wouldn’t have gone out on the patio under the gray latillas. He wouldn’t have called Renée one last time.

Andy rolled out of bed right into his sweats. He slid on the wood floors, in socks, to the kitchen. He didn’t look like a forty year old about to be thrown out of the gallery he’d shown at the longest. He looked like a ten year old on the first day of summer break.

He made a pot of black coffee and plowed sugar into it from the tilted jar with a serving spoon. He stirred the pot, poured a cup from it, and set it back on the heating pad. He grabbed his cellular phone out of habit and sat on the patio overlooking one of Southern New Mexico’s unknown, but prime, wine valleys. The naked twisted vine trunks were in rows from one side of the valley to the other.

The mountains around the shallow valley were a kind of blue made by subtracting from black, their outline was a perfect razor. There were reluctant stars in the western sky. The sun would be up in half an hour. Venus hung there alone above the mountains where the sky was turning pale green.

Andy stared out over the valley, hardly blinking, sipping steaming coffee with his cold fingers wrapped around the huge mug. Two magpies drew his vision noisily flying out of a white shock of baby aspen just acquiring leaves again. That was when Andy realized there was a tiny background noise. It was the sound of metal splitting soil. Someone was shoveling.

The stand of trees was around the little pond that was usually filled from the acequia this time of year. It was quite a long way off but sounds drifted clearly in the cold scoop of valley air. He could hear better than he could see, but he could see something.

It was a man digging in the soft dirt on the edge of the original till line; about ten feet away from the nearest vine stalks. There were not many people who lived in the valley, Andy knew them all. He wasn’t sure who the man was and he didn’t recognize the rusting flatbed International parked on the access road. He was Anglo though. Andy was sure he was Anglo, his hair was the sinker. Andy strained his myopic eyes to the point of astigmatism; and he could almost see. The body at the man’s feet wasn’t Anglo. It was Hispanic or Indian, female or a boy with long hair.

Andy picked up the phone and produced a dial tone by pressing the green button with his thumb. Sheriff Paterson was a friend of sorts, had even bought two of his paintings, Andy knew the department number from numerous lunch dates; though Paterson was likely at home this early. His thumb hovered for awhile over the number pad but his eyes never followed it. He folded the phone and set it down.

The Anglo man was thigh deep in black soil. Andy finished his coffee, got up and went inside for another cup and his binoculars. He’d only ever used them for watching the huge hawks and occasional eagles that came to the valley for the copious prairie dogs. They were ten power and except for the lack of light he could see fine now.

The young man had got down to the caliche but was still trying to dig. Andy knew he’d give that up quickly. The grave was deep enough, probably, to escape overturning by coyotes. They didn’t come down much anyway with Jesus Martinez’s kid shooting any that did by day or by moonlight. The man would realize he wasn’t going to get any deeper and stop digging soon. Andy knew that meant he was either the Fleming kid or he wasn’t local. If he was from the valley he wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to dig the caliche at all unless it was the Fleming kid, Dana, who it did look just a little like. The Flemings had a Chicana maid. It might be Dana because Andy knew that the kid had never done an hour of work in his life and wouldn’t know shit about digging. Yeah, it was probably the Fleming kid, but it was still too dark with his lousy night vision to be sure.

The sun was just coming up. The light was on the mountains on the other side of the valley, sliding downward. Andy had a sip of coffee. The last time he’d been up this early was years ago; that nearly fatal camping trip in the Jemez with Renée.

Andy was up first and hiked up the hill a little to get the sun as early as possible. He was cold the whole trip. If he was cold that meant Renée was nearly freezing. Like they needed something else to fight about.

When he drifted back down with the sunlight she was making coffee on a campfire. The gas unit was empty on the first day they went up. One more pearl in the strand.

Andy was feeling wonderful for the sun and the coffee. He forgot momentarily that she was always ready to get mad at him now. Trying to be more kind or thoughtful seemed, irrationally, to accelerate the tendency.

He ran down and wrapped her in his arms. She spun out of his embrace like he was a mugger and gave him hell about… what was she so mad about? Andy asked himself. Was it the wet shoes that morning or was it that I’d put all the stuff away where the bears wouldn’t get at it and she was mad because she couldn’t reach it without help? He couldn’t remember. All that really was clear about that trip anymore was that she had finally admitted to the affair while they were driving home on a wretched section of State road.

He didn’t get so mad, out loud. Instead he wrote a plan to dissolve his anger.

While he drove he was thinking of the exits before they got to the I. There were at least four before they left the Nat’l Parkland. Andy would have stopped and killed her too. He knew which Campground would be best and he knew he could go back to where they’d camped and report her missing on a hike. He’d take her up to one of the cliffs and roll her off, again. He’d run the gas out of the Cherokee on idle, fill in all the fine details, and hitch it to the closest police station. Then the search for his lost wife would begin. Crows and coyotes would have ruined any forensic evidence Andy wasn’t thorough enough to cover up by then. Paterson was the kind of Country Sheriff who, if he knew Renée had been screwing around before her accident, would help with shuffling paperwork between counties so Andy wouldn’t have a lot to worry about. He had the whole thing planned in less than three minutes, the stinging betrayal and her smarmy attitude about it were sharper than spurs and drove him harder. The only reason he didn’t pull over and kill her is because he knew he’d have to do it quickly or he’d lose his nerve. She wasn’t strong enough to stop him but she was quite capable of putting up a fight. Andy didn’t have the heart for it. He wanted her dead in that moment as much as he’d ever wanted anything but he had no fair warning and still loved her. He saw clearly what would happen. He’d start, his rage would evaporate in the moment, then she’d have everything he owned in the divorce instead of a little less than half. Andy shut his mouth for the rest of the drive and cut his losses.

The only thing that felt better now was that he’d had the balls to ask three times; through the recrimination of what she called, …this venomous doubt. He asked twice before and she’d denied it. It made him glad that at least part of him hadn’t fallen for it. That he forced her to lie before she was ready to leave the marriage on her own terms. All his life he’d heard from matriarchs and debutantes what pigs men were. Everyone is, but at least some of us aren’t liars about it, he told himself. He didn’t have it in him to kill but he sure as hell was sympathetic with the emotion. He still wanted Renée dead sometimes. There were nights, very rare anymore, when he couldn’t sleep because he was too locked up in hatred. In hating whatever part of the woman was able to lie. Her desire for another man he understood, even ending a marriage was within his capacity to accept, but why the lies, he had no idea. It was maddening, yet he was only mad with himself. He had his chance to kill the hate. He declined it. All he could do was make sure he never had to make that choice again. He’d spent five years doing that superbly.

The body was clearer now. It still looked like she was wearing black but Andy knew it was a white shirt drenched in blood now that there was some light. The Fleming kid, probably anyway, was bent over with his hands in his armpits. Nursing palms full of broken blisters, thought Andy, That’s it then, he’s going to finish it. And the man did roll the body into the hole; climbed in after to try to force her stiff limbs into form.

The thing that struck Andy was the uncertainty of any situation. How was he to know why there was a dead girl down there and a boy who’d never dug a grave before? What was his role for getting up too early because the morning was beautiful and he slept too well? There were literally a million circumstances that could have led up to this. Andy was unwilling to even call it a murder. It was what it was; a burial, period. What came before was absolutely blocked from his knowing. What came after…

The thing Renée did that jumpstarted his hate back into temporary full bloom was only about a year before. She had brought her new husband—the third; something about Renée necessitated marrying about one in three of the men she slept with—to Andy’s Spring show. He was showing landscapes and nudes painted in the time that peace was returning to his nights. A show made exquisite by the beautiful twenty year old model he was painting. He hadn’t slept with her but having her there, with her ridiculous hero worship as naked as she was, knowing that he could sleep with her was enough; the controlled erotic tension was there on every canvas.

It was that goddamn crack about the nudes. She was making a show of strength by coming and had been hurt by how beautiful the paintings were. She of course asked point blank, seeing the first canvas, if the girl was as good a lay as Renée was at twenty. That wasn’t what pissed him off, he expected that sort of thing. Renée had matured like bad wine over the years, right into vinegar. What pissed him off was when he said he didn’t sleep with his models and she laughed and said, Sure, Andy, you look so tired because painting is wearing you out. And that bastard of a hood ornament of hers laughed, winking. Andy was mad enough to kill both of them. In lieu of this he went outside to finish a large glass of wine and have a cigarette.

She followed him outside by herself; wearing the cool desperation of a fifteen year hunger to get a rise out of him. He looked her right in the eyes and told her then, not sure why, he just had to tell her. He told her exactly how he almost killed her that day, how he would have done it, and how he sometimes still wished he’d gone ahead with it. She laughed when he was done with his unemotional testimony of the facts. She said, You’re still full of shit, Andy, after all this time. She got the rise she was after then. He threw the wine in her eyes without hesitation and then nearly hit her but pulled his hand back down to his waist instead.

Andy took one more look at the boy burying the girl in the valley. He put the binoculars down, reached for the phone, drank the remains of his tepid coffee, and dialed Renée’s number.

The kid was turning toward him now. Scanning the valley in the light, making sure he was still alone out there. Andy knew if he didn’t move, the kid wouldn’t see him. Even without his binoculars up Andy was pretty sure now that it wasn’t Dana Fleming, which made sense. But it made no difference. Dana wasn’t the type to be able to do anything; work or murder. Whoever it was was back at it, making short work of filling in the grave.

Andy decided he would paint there tomorrow; who knows, maybe even cry after finishing a portrait of a grave. He would take his easel and box down before dawn and find the exact strokes and palette that would liberate some girl’s soul from whatever purgatory her memory lived in.

Renée answered the phone on the eighth ring, it was early for her yet.

“You lost then, and you lose this morning, Renée,” Andy said and hung up with his thumb.

Andy dialed the Sheriff Department. He told Deputy Sanchez that if he hauled ass down the access road that split the Fleming’s from the Parkland he’d catch himself a young man who lost this morning too.

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