He was alone in the corner booth by the door when she came in. He had been watching the snow flakes through Leo's big front window. The flakes fell slowly, larger now, Disney animation under the street lamp. He didn't get up. She sat down opposite him, small and poised. Her expression showed relief.
"I hoped you'd be here," she said. "I should have known you would be." Her little glasses made her face look smaller and her eyes brighter. She was very pretty. She pushed back the fur hood and revealed her dark hair, tied back severely.
"Then it wasn't any trouble finding me," said the man. "I try not to be too much trouble for you." He lit a cigarette and returned his interest to the view outside the window. He was watching the big white flakes turning red in the light of Leo's sign. The woman looked about the room, her eyes moving quickly.
The man's paintings hung here and there; some were high on the wall above the booths. Some were over the bar, above the glasses. A few were over the pool table in the rear of the long room. She sensed that the paintings moved within the frames; the subjects, people, none old and none young, eyes wide and unashamed, the faces familiar. They seemed to view the viewer, looking at the looker, inviting comment, challenging. The woman had felt this before when looking at his work.
She had never been unsure of her professional eye until she saw Larry's paintings. She, as an agent, was awed but not sure why, and worked hard to stay within her agent's bounds. Finally she looked at him.
"Do you want me to go, Larry? I didn't know if you'd want me here. But I wanted to talk to you about tonight."
"Would you like a drink?" He was still watching the snow falling. He turned his head and nodded to the bartender, holding up his glass. "I've always liked this place," he said. "It's a good place to think." A burly man in a white shirt and black bow-tie shuffled to the table. He had obviously been a prizefighter; his thin eyebrows and sagging lids wrinkled into a smile. He set the glass down and left.
"Am I bothering you, Larry? I could leave."
"I invited you to have a drink," he said. "If you want to leave, leave." He was beginning to feel the warmth of the brandy. He had been enjoying the solitary time before the woman arrived, watching the falling flakes. He didn't want to be mean to the woman who had come looking for him. He showed a small smile. "No, Milly, I don't want you to go," he said, gently.
She took the cigarette he offered and he lit it for her with a book-match. Then he uncorked the bottle and poured a small drink for each of them. The woman continued to search his face.
"You shouldn't have left the party. The deGraff's couldn't believe you just left. They thought it was rude, not to mention your remarks. Their party was for you, your debut! And you made your little speech and walked out." She looked around the room again, unsmiling. Larry had been looking out the window as he listened. Now he shifted his eyes to look at her.
"It was their party! They wanted to show off their latest acquisition! They had a new pet; Sit boy, paint something!" The man remembered the incident but his face displayed no anger. He closed his eyes and smiled. "Come on, Milly. Did you really think that would work for me? The sloppy-drunk matrons with diamonds and no manners? The deGraff's and their artistic friends? How did you think I would respond to those old broads rubbing their rebuilt tits on me?" He opened his eyes and cocked his head. "Is that the audience that applauds my work? What do I do after they put the check in my hand? Take them to my studio? Visit my little bed?" The small smile remained on his lips as he gazed out at the snow again.
The woman watched him and then looked about the room again, at the things he had created, her face softening. She sipped at her amber glass.
"I wondered at your poise, Larry, I really did. Your patience and your poise were remarkable, and I I saw the women - oh, God, I don't blame you for leaving. But I knew at the time, there goes the debut! There goes the future of a brilliant painter! I suppose I knew then that your big chance was gone." The man moved his eyes from the window to the woman.
"Milly," he said, "tell me you're not serious. What ever made you think I needed the deGraff's? I only went along with the party for you. When I couldn't take it any more, I left. I had had enough. I'll go tomorrow and get my stuff. You think I spoiled things for me, and for you. You think it'll make you look bad, too, don't you? Well, get up off the mat, girl! You don't need them either."
"I guess I just wanted you to say something to me, goodbye or so long or something. But you just left."
"That's right. I left and went for a walk and here I am." His cigarette had gone out in the ashtray so he lit another. He put his head back and looked at the ceiling. The woman studied his face as she had studied his work. She considered her words for several minutes.
She smiled and said, "The scar under your chin. I never noticed it before. I suppose that's from fighting. I know the ones in your eyebrows are from being pounded on, and your off-center nose. Do you encourage people to hit you, like a punching-bag? You should charge for the privilege; you'd make a little extra money!" She seemed to be enjoying her little humor. Larry held up his hand, defensively, smiling at her display.
"Easy! What's that all about? So I look a little beat-up. You should see the other guy!"
The woman shook her head and drained her glass. "I just think it's such a waste, Larry! You do know you don't look in the least like an artist. You just don't! I'm sorry."
"Well, Milly, as Popeye would say, 'I yam what I yam!'" Then he laughed at her rueful expression; she had turned down the corners of her mouth, pouting. He laughed again, not loudly.
"That's another thing the deGraff's don't understand," she said. "Why a gifted painter goes out and fights people and takes a chance on being seriously injured. For what? Not to mention what could happen to your hands - or your eyes! Oh, Larry! I know you don't like to hear about it, but these people are a door for you. If they want to sponsor you and back your show and introduce you to the world of dealers and buyers I don't know I just think you should it's probably too late now, anyway. At least talk to them, Larry."
He poured a small drink for himself and watched the weather through the window. The storm was gathering and he could not see beyond the sidewalk.
"You're a painter, Milly. Aren't you?" he asked quietly.
She considered her answer for a moment. "I used to think I was. But I wanted more than my cold-water flat. And I don't have the talent you do. My little watercolors were well, I liked them. I had a good feeling about them. Not good enough for an exhibition, though. If I had your expression - don't look at me like that!" she said. She raised her glass, indicating his paintings. "I don't have your talent, O.K? If I did " Her eyes narrowed behind her little glasses. "If I did I wouldn't go around letting people beat up on me!"
Larry shook his head and grinned. "Please, give it a rest! Take a break. Listen to me - no, listen! O.K, about the fighting, it's a way to let off steam. You're not listening. I feel crowded, sometimes. I need to move around. I like the movement, the give and take. It's like chess. Stop smirking. It's trying to guess the other guy's next move, getting in ahead of him, doing the unexpected, scoring first. Sometimes I need to be smacked around and have some guy I can tag, too."
He reached across the table and took one of her hands in both of his. "It's not for money. Thanks to you I've got a bank account. The rich ladies think it's chic to buy from riff-raff. In the ring I have to concentrate hard on what I'm doing. It clears my mind. When it's over I take the money and go away for awhile. I watch people and talk to them, old people, kids people like to talk if you just listen to them. They tell you the old stories, brag about important things; you can see the importance in their eyes."
Larry stopped talking for a moment to see if she understood. "That's what I paint, Milly. When they're talking and remembering, they're not posing. That's when they're real. I guess that's when I'm real, too."
There was a pause. She didn't want to look at him, because she almost understood; she was trying to work something out, and she was almost there. The man spoke in a quiet voice, and looked at her closely.
"There are some unimportant little places I want to see: a village on a beach with black sand; small towns where people still smile; hard-working people taking it easy in a park on Sunday." He looked across at the serious dark-haired woman, and grinned broadly, then let the grin subside. "Why not come with me? You'll bring your paints. We'll look around, talk to people, see what they have to say. They'll share their bread and cheese and we'll remember them with our colors. We'll come back when we want to give a two-man show. Call it Beauty and the Beast. I'll be the Beast." He was still grinning.
She put her elbow on the table, her chin in her hand, and blew out her breath. "Oh, Larry," she said, and tried hard to sound disgusted.
When they left it was still snowing and they walked close together through the swirling flakes. Soon they were out of sight in the haze. Leo's sign was a constant beacon. Inside the bar a woman laughed, but outside the frosted window the sound didn't travel far.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Al Carty. All rights reserved.