I had a Dark Moment today in the studio and told some of the saints to march straight to Hell. It’s a sign that the painting is not going very well. The models stepped down from their pedestals, took off their halos, their robes, put on their backpacks, and walked out into the concrete heat of Greater L.A. They shook their big inflatable heads as they went, and to their backs I made that face — the one Miranda used to call, “The Pooping Crab.” An angel sniggered at me. She was the only other person left in the studio. Whatever. These saints just aren’t cutting the goddamn mustard — not just these three, but all of them. Their halos are absurdly large — it’s maddening, the way they block out each other’s faces. And there are too many of them in the first place, all swarming around the Virgin and Child like a bunch of groupies trying to get picked for first miracle. I said these things out loud. The angel got fresh and tried to stick up for them, pointing out that it was I who had made the halos and posed them the way they were. I know I need to learn to Accept Fault, but there’s nothing I hate more than someone else trying to make me do it. Plus this particular angel is the one whose face I’ve come to hate most (her eyes are a ridiculous, impossible color). I repeated what she said back to her in a tone meant to shed light on the fact that she was behaving like a child. Then I squirted a tube of cobalt blue in her general direction and told her to leave. She grunted at me like a truffle pig, took off her halo, her wings, her robe, called me a sad bastard, and tramped her way out the door. She has an unsettlingly sassy backside.
I stood there for awhile with my behemoth painting. The thing is the size of a goddamn barn. I should’ve left out some of the lesser saints but now it’s too late. It’s too far along and there’s no way I’m starting over.
I spoke to Miranda about amending the custody agreement. She completely flipped her lid. She said the only reason things are getting weird between Felix and me is because I don’t know the first thing about being a father and Felix is finally getting old enough to realize it. She has very little sensitivity to my situation at this point, which I think is misplaced lust.
I just think every other weekend would be enough.
Today I tried to Make Peace with the angel I squirted paint at, indicating my regret by spending most of the first session staring dutifully into her eyes, trying to get that goddamn color right. I think she noticed because in the second 5-minute break she offered me some of her banana, which I had to decline because I’d never be caught dead biting a banana in public. “How about instead you give me the exact recipe for your goddamn eyeballs?” I said. I laughed and clapped her on the back to indicate jest but she wasn’t laughing yet so I said, “Or maybe we could just gouge them out! That would be a hell of a lot easier to paint, wouldn’t it?!” I’m afraid the girl has zero sense of humor. All she said was, “Jesus.” Then she sassed off into the hallway where I could tell by the conspiratorial tone and volume of murmuring that the models were talking about me. I tried to listen through the wall but couldn’t make out the words so I just banged on the wall and yelled that break was over.
I think often about the slanderous review those teeny-peckered losers printed over at the LA Times, but try to follow Dr. What’s-his-butt’s advice and not to get too Worked Up about it, and Come to Terms. They called me a goddamn poseur, like they’re fucking Parisians from the Louvre! I think the only Terms I’ve Come to are that they are all a bunch of teeny-peckered losers and that’s not my fault and there’s not much I can do about it beyond telling everybody in town that they’re full of shit and that their wives probably have to hire gigolos to get sexual satisfaction. Those assholes wouldn’t know good art if it were sitting on their face.
Mother called. She asked me again how I got so religious, repeating that it sure as Hell wasn’t her.
“From Giotto,” I said. “Caravaggio.”
“I still don’t know what that means,” she said, and reminded me that I went to a vocational high school. “What’s wrong with plumbing?” she asked, “It was good enough for your father.”
I thought about pointing out the error — using the word “good” in the same sentence as “your father” — but it tired me to think of it.
“Which is why he smelled like a clogged toilet,” I said.
There was a pause on the line and I could hear the crackle of her cigarette. “He did, didn’t he,” she said.
I find myself fantasizing more and more about Miranda. I imagine her with very, very long, waving blonde hair — much longer than she has ever really had — hair so long that, out of modesty, she wraps around her front to cover her pudendum. She is nude of course, her pale skin flushing pink with desire.
The Powerball money is close to running out. I’ve been playing the major lottos every day, two tickets each, like I used to before I hit it big. Something’s bound to happen soon — I can feel a continuous lifting sensation in my testicles, just like last time.
The painting is going horrifically. It’s as if my talent has contracted a case of particularly explosive diarrhea, unable to do much beyond producing bursts of formless shit. I haven’t gone anywhere near the Virgin’s face for fear of what will happen to it if I do. I pray at least five times a day for the return of my capacities with the brush, but clearly they’re not getting through. I am convinced that God speaks only Latin.
I’m dreading my upcoming weekend with Felix. Father’s Day apparently. The boy has become a breed of alien to me, with his droopy eyelids and almost pornographic upper lip hair. He seems to be incessantly oozing pus and oil from eruptions all over his face and neck. His voice, which was once quite agreeable for a child, has been knocked down an octave and then completely out of tune, so he sounds like some horny primate.
To calm myself down I try to remember him as a baby, a cherubim attending the Virgin and her newborn Christ, a set of papier-mâché putti wings strapped around his shoulders. He was a good boy — quiet and patient, if not a little slow in the head. That little boys turn into these greasy, crotch-twiddling teens is such a shame.
I’m pretty sure my St. Mark took a photograph of the painting with his iPhone today. I was mid-conversation with the Virgin herself, suggesting prescription antiperspirant, when I heard a fake camera shutter sound. I wheeled around and St. Mark was standing there in front of the painting looking down at his iPhone. I could tell he was trying to act blasé, like he hadn’t done anything, with that pretend look of concentration people make when they know someone is looking at them. I think I said something to the effect of, “Delete that picture or I castrate you where you stand.” I know at least that I used the word castrate, because I remember how cleanly it silenced the room — just like it always does. St. Mark — dopey, fraudulent St. Mark — looks up at me like a wronged toddler, like Felix used to look at me when I’d yank his thumb out of his mouth. Marky Mark denies taking any picture. I grab the goddamn thing from his hand and try to find the picture but he’s done something to lock it and it says I need a password. “Unlock it,” I tell him, but he says no, so I say, “Do you want to keep your job?” and he says no, so I fucking fired him. Most of his face is hidden behind St. Luke’s halo anyway, so I can just fudge it with a stand-in. The last thing I told him was, “If I find that fucking picture on the internet, or worse, in the fucking LA Times, I will sue your nuts to the wall.”
It occurred to me that I could use Felix as the stand-in for St. Mark so I set up a session at the studio for today. To get him into the car I told him I had a surprise, and that we’d get some lotto tickets on the way. We got the tickets first, and I paid for his plays under the condition that I’d get 75% of any winnings. He seemed wholly ungrateful. Then I took the roundabout route, through the canyon, so he wouldn’t get suspicious. I pointed out all of the places where I know people have driven over the edge, either by accident or on purpose. He seemed to enjoy that, but it’s so difficult to tell. When we pulled into the parking lot of the studio building he made a perverse groaning sound, as if someone were slowly pushing their knee into his gonads. “What did you expect?” I said. “A cruise ship?”
To get him out of the car I told him I had a peephole that looked from my little office into the room where the models changed into their robes, and that my current Virgin was an aspiring actress whom I had chosen specifically for the dramatic matronly quality of her mammaries, which seem ever-eager to burst forth from restrictive garments to feed a suckling babe. (If I’m True to Myself, the real reason I chose her was because she looks very much like Miranda did in her early thirties, but this I did not tell Felix.) I told him she and a few other female models would be arriving within the hour, and that I would leave him alone in my office. I got out of the car, shut the door, and walked away, partly for the theatre of it, partly because I couldn’t bear the possibility of seeing a movement in the crotchal region of his shorts. He waited for a moment then reluctantly got out and followed me inside, his head bobbing lowly, like a homely kid on picture day.
After the models had all changed, Felix remained in the office for quite some time. When he finally came out, the models, who were already in position and holding, were given a start. I don’t blame them — the boy appeared like a troll from under a bridge, and no one had even known he was in there, or who he was. “This is Felix.” I said. “He is the child of my first and only marriage, which is now defunct. He will be standing in as St. Mark today.” I looked at Felix, who stared back at me with his usual half-dead toad look. I raised my eyebrows to indicate that he damn well play along if he ever wanted to see another pair of tits in his life, and told him the robe was in the dressing room.
He was a substandard, wobbly St. Mark, who kept staring at the Virgin, even after I repeatedly told him he was supposed to be gazing upon the face of the stand-in Baby Jesus — which was, in fact, one of Felix’s plastic dolls from when he was a young boy.
For dinner, to indicate some gratitude, I took Felix up to the Ruby’s on the pier in Malibu and got burgers. He seemed hell-bent on saying as few words and making as little eye contact as he possibly could. I asked him if he thought Miranda missed me and all he did was shrug.
“Of course, she does,” I said. “She has to.”
And to that he didn’t even shrug, just stuffed some garlic fries into his already-full mouth.
“Oh, come on, come on,” I said, “say something.”
He said, “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to admit that your mother misses me.”
He shook his head and scoffed and for a flash I wanted to pour his Coke on his head — but I took a breath through my nose and Checked my Aggression. But then he said, “Dad, she’s been dating Glenn for like half a year now.”
“Glenn?” I said, maybe not so calmly, “Who the hell is Glenn?”
Felix stopped chewing and just looked at me, stunned.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I said, “You mean Glenn? The weenie neighbor guy? The guy who’s obsessed with fishing?”
Felix just kept staring.
“No goddamn way,” I said. “There’s no goddamn way. Miranda would never be interested in a guy like that. We used to make fun of him together! I would do impressions of his lisp and she would laugh and laugh! She ate it up! No goddamn way.”
Felix swallowed and looked down at his plate. “I thought you knew,” he said.
“No, no I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, because I won’t believe it until I see it with my own two eyes.”
The doughboy manager came over and asked if everything was okay.
“What do you care?” I asked him. “Why can’t anybody mind their own flippin’ business?”
He just didn’t want me disturbing the other customers, he said.
“What about me?” I said. “What about how I’m disturbed? I’m the one who’s disturbed here.”
Felix’s face was bright red, and he kept his head low, his eyes down. I pulled out my wallet and dropped two twenties on the table. “Grab your burger,” I told him, and I grabbed mine too, and we got up and walked out.
I left Felix on a bench and went a little ways down the pier to call Miranda. She picked up after just two rings. She always answers quickly when I have Felix, but then when I don’t she might not pick up at all.
“Is everything alright?” she asked. The way she said it, with some actual concern in her voice, turned me to pudding. I never hear that from her anymore. But I knew it was for Felix, not me.
“Yes, well, yes I suppose so,” I said.
Already she fell back to the usual, ticked-off tone. “What is it Richard?”
I kicked at a wooden railing post. I was still holding my burger. “Well, Felix is under the impression that you’re, ah, dating that neighbor guy, Glenn — the fishing guy.”
She sighed. That goddamn sigh, it’s like the worst sound in the world and yet I’ve heard it so much it’s like I’m addicted to it. Like I can’t help myself from saying things that will make it come out of her over and over again. I heard a door close on her end of the line.
“Ah, so it’s true,” I said. “Our little man is more perceptive than he lets on.”
That rubbed her the wrong way. “Don’t you dare talk about him like that,” she hissed. “That’s your son.”
I looked down the pier to where Felix was sitting. He was far enough away that he couldn’t have heard me. He’d finished his burger and was just staring out into the dark over the water. Then, like he knew I was watching, he turned his head and our eyes met. I gave him a little wave with my burger hand and turned away.
“Indeed,” I said into the phone, “indeed.”
“What the hell do you mean, “indeed, indeed”?” Miranda said. “You sound like an asshole.”
“Well, whether or not I’m an asshole is a bit beside the point at this point, don’t you think?”
“Listen to yourself, Richard.”
“The fishing guy. I can’t believe it,” I said. Then I did my impression of his lisp, she hung up, and I hurled my burger out into the ocean.
We’ve been to Hell and back today. I made a grave mistake in bringing Felix again to the studio, again letting him into my office during changing time, again having him stand in as St. Mark. Despite my rebukes, he fixed his gaze upon the Virgin, his eyes open wider than I’ve seen in years. I could see it, could sense it squirming through his guts like a tapeworm. The poor urchin is in love with my Virgin Mary. Of fucking course he is. I bore his eyes upon her for what seemed like hours of painting, but inside, a Very Dark Moment was brewing. I made silent prayers in pidgin Italian to be saved from this tempest, to be steered into a clearing of light. What would Giotto do?! I asked. Oh, please, let Miranda come back to me, let her body teach me to paint all over again, to show me the coloring of blushing breast, the brushstroke best for waving hair, the honest shape of curving hips. But my Italian is plain terrible. I have no head, or tongue, for foreign language. My prayers, I’m sure, didn’t make it beyond the crusty ceiling of my crusty studio in the crustiest part of town.
I looked at Felix one more time, saw the oily glisten under his eyes, followed his gaze to my little Miranda look-alike, then Lost Control. My fist shot out to the canvas and punched a hole through the face of St. Mark. A foot kicked in the face of the angel with the impossible eyes. I lunged toward the poorly-rendered Virgin Mary and tackled the whole painting to the floor — the whole huge fucking thing, on its huge fucking easel. I fell on top of it. The noise, the bedlam, was like Armageddon.
I came to, face-up, to a vision of Miranda. She hung over me, her breasts heaving like Heaven, just overhead. “Are you okay?” she asked, dabbing at my forehead with a wet cloth. But the voice was not hers. As my eyes focused more, I could see it was the model, the Virgin Mary. Her real name is Ashlynn. Or at least that’s what her name is now. I’m told she’s in the adult film industry. She really is lovely though.
I sat up and looked around for Felix. He was gone.
I left the studio, left my models standing around like a family of deer, beautiful and dumb in the headlights. Felix wasn’t outside so I got in my car and started driving around, searching. I searched for an hour around town. I took the roundabout route and drove through the canyon. Finally, I returned to my house. The door to the guest room where Felix stayed was closed and I could hear the murmur of the television through the wall. I opened the door. Felix was sitting on the floor, his face only a few feet from the screen. I heard his voice, but he was only a little boy. “Daddy! Look!” An ethereal sensation washed over me. I gripped the doorknob to hold myself up. I heard then my own voice — like in my head, but also, detached, with a strange but familiar tone — excited. “Show me, Felix! Show me, little bud!”
On the TV screen, sweet Felix, standing on the yellow linoleum of our old dining room, thrust his hand forward in triumph, presenting some small treasure.
“My toof! It came out!” he howled with glee. He held up his tiny ivory tooth between thumb and forefinger, like one holds up a gemstone to the light. I zoomed in for a close-up, first of the tooth, then the grinning face of the boy — his lower lip still kissed with blood. He pulled down the lip to show the tooth’s old place.
“Wow!, little buddy!” I said. “You’re like Grandpa now! Pretty soon we’ll have to get you a whole new replacement set, that you can keep in a glass of water by your bed at night!”
Felix’s face was bouncing in and out of the frame — he was jumping up and down. “Yay!” he shouted.
“Richard!” scolded Miranda’s voice from somewhere unseen. Another ethereal wash over my body and I thought I might fall forward into the room. I braced myself against the door jamb. On the screen a dizzy blur — of things I still know by heart, the hanging plant, the bird clock, the wall-mounted spice rack. And then a glowing, soft-edged face, in profile, looking down — her face, coming into focus. The sounds of chopping carrots — unmistakable. “Look at me,” I said.
“Richard,” she said.
“Quick! The tape is about to end!” I said.
She sighed and looked up. The sound of her chopping stopped. Her blue eyes were tired of me. Her beauty made me want to drive off a cliff, into an ocean.
The screen went black, then snowy. My cell phone rang in my pocket. Felix turned, though not surprised. He had known I was there. I pulled out the phone and looked at the display. It was mother. I flipped it open. “What is it, Mother?”
“I just wanted to see how your Father’s Day was going, that’s all.”
I stared at Felix and he stared back at me. He had Miranda’s eyes. “Mother,” I said, “you know very well how I feel about Father’s Day.” I heard the crackle of her cigarette. “But I’m trying,” I said.
“Okay, Ricky,” she said. “Okay.”
“Okay, Mother. I have to go. Felix is here. My son Felix is here.”