The Model (United States)

By Bernard Malamud
Page 220

Early one morning, Ephraim Elihu rang up the Art Students League and asked the women who answered the phone how he could locate an experienced female model he could paint nude. He told the women that he wanted someone of about thirty. “Could you possibly help me?”
“I don’t recognize your name,” said the women on the telephone. “Have you ever dealt with us before?” Mr. Elihu said he hadn’t. He wanted it understood he was an amateur painter who had once studied at the League.
“Do you have a studio?”
“It’s a large living room with lots of lights. I’m no youngster,” he said, “but after many years I’ve begun painting again and I’d like to do some nude studies to get back my feeling for form. I’m not a professional painter, but I’m serious about painting. If you want any references as to my character, I can supply them.”
He asked her what the going rate for models was, and the woman, after a pause, said, “Six dollars the hour.”
Mr. Elihu said that was satisfactory to him. He wanted to talk longer, but she did not encourage him to. She wrote down his name and address and said she thought she could have someone for him the day after tomorrow. He thanked her for her consideration.
That was on Wednesday. The model appeared on Friday morning. She had telephoned the night before, and they had settled on a time for her to come. She rang his bell shortly after nine, and Mr. Elihu went at once to the door. He was a gray-haired man of seventy who lived in a brownstone house near Ninth Avenue, and he was excited by the prospect of painting this young women.
The model was a plain-looking woman of twenty-seven or so, and the painter decided her best features were her eyes. She was wearing a blue raincoat, though it was a clear spring day. The old painter liked her but kept that to himself. She barely glanced at him as she walked firmly into the room.
“Good day,” he said, and she answered, “Good day.”
“It’s like spring,” said the old man. “The foliage is starting up again.”
“Where do you want me to change?” asked the model.
Mr. Elihu asked her her name, and she responded, “Ms. Perry.”
“You can change in the bathroom, I would say, Miss Perry, or if you like, my own room – down the hall – is empty, and you can change there also. It’s warmer than the bathroom.”
The model said it made no difference to her but she thought she would rather change in the bathroom.
“That is as you wish,” said the elderly man.
“Is your wife around?” she then asked, glancing into the room.
“No, I happen to be a widower.”
He said he had had a daughter once, but she had died in an accident.
The model said she was very sorry. “I’ll change and be out in a few fast minutes.”
”No hurry at all,” said Mr. Elihu, glad he was about to paint her.
Ms. Perry entered the bathroom, undressed there, and returned quickly. She slipped off her terry-cloth robe. Her head and shoulders were slender and well formed. She asked the old man how he would like her to pose. He was standing by an enamel-top kitchen table near a large window. On the tabletop he had squeezed out, and was mixing together, the contents of two small tubes of paint. There were three other tubes, which he did not touch. The model, taking a last drag of a cigarette, pressed it out against a coffee-can lid on the kitchen table.
“I hope you don’t mind if I take a puff once in a while?”
“I don’t mind, if you do it when we take a break.”
”That’s all I meant.”
She was watching his as he slowly mixed his colors.
Mr. Elihu did not immediately look at her nude body but said he would like her to sit in the chair by the window. They were facing a back yard with an ailanthus tree whose leaves had just come out.
“How would you like me to sit, legs crossed or not crossed?”
”However you prefer that. Crossed or uncrossed doesn’t make much of a difference to me. Whatever makes you fell comfortable.”
The model seemed surprised at that, but she sat down in the yellow chair by the window and crossed on leg over the other. Her figure was good.
“Is this okay for you?”
Mr. Elihu nodded. “Fine,” he said. “Very fine.”
He dipped his brush into the paint he had mixed on the tabletop, and after glancing at the model’s nude body, began to paint. He would look at her, then look quickly away, as if he were of affronting her. But his expression was objective. He painted apparently casually, from time to time gazing up at the model. He did not often look at her. She seemed not to be aware of him. Once she turned to observe the ailanthus tree, and he studied her momentarily to see what she might have seen in it.
Then she began to watch the painter with interest. She watched his eyes and she watched his hands. He wondered if he was doing something wrong. At the end of about an hour she rose impatiently from the yellow chair.
“Tired?” he asked.
“It isn’t that,” she said, “but I would like to know what in the name of Christ you think you are doing? I frankly don’t think you know the first thing about painting.”
She had astonished him. He quickly covered the canvas with a towel.
After a long moment, Mr. Elihu, breathing shallowly, wet his dry lips and said he was making no claims for himself as a painter. He said he had tried to make that absolutely clear to the woman he talked to at the art school when he called.
Then he said, “I might have made a mistake in asking you to come to this house today. I think I should have tested myself a while longer, just so I wouldn’t be wasting anybody’s time. I guess I am not ready to do what I would like to do.”
“I don’t car how long you think you have painted me at all. In fact, I felt you weren’t interested in painting me. I think you’re interested in letting your eyes go over my naked body for certain reasons of your own. I don’t know what your personal needs are, but I’m damn sure that most of them have nothing to do with painting.”
“I guess I have made a mistake.”
“I guess you have,” said the model. She had her robe on now, the belt pulled tight.
“I’m a painter,” she said, “and I model because I’m broke, but I know a fake when I see one.”
“I wouldn’t feel so bad,” said Mr. Elihu, “if I hadn’t gone out of my way to explain the situation to that lady at the Art Students League.
“I’m sorry this happened,” Mr. Elihu said hoarsely. “I should have thought it through more than I did. I’m seventy years of age. I have always loved women and felt a sad loss that I have no particular women friends at this time in my life. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to paint again, though I make no claim that I was ever greatly talented. Also, I guess I didn’t realize how much about painting I have forgotten. Not only about that, but also about the female body. I didn’t realize I would be so moved by yours, and, on reflection, about the way my life has gone. I hoped painting again would refresh my feeling for life. I regret that I have inconvenienced and disturbed you.”
”I’ll be paid for my inconvenience,” Ms. Perry said, “but what you can’t pay me for is the insult of coming her and submitting myself to your eyes crawling on my body.”
“I didn’t mean it as an insult.”
”That’s what if feels like to me.”
She then asked Mr. Elihu to disrobe.
“I?” he said, surprised. “What for?”
“I want to sketch you. Take you pants and shirt off.”
He said he had barely got rid of his winter underwear, but she did not smile.
Mr. Elihu disrobed, ashamed of how he must look to her. With quick strokes she sketched his form. He was not a bad-looking man, but felt bad. When she had the sketch, she dipped his brush into a blob of black pigment she had squeezed out of a tube and smeared his features, leaving a black mess.
He watched her hating him, but said nothing.
Ms. Perry tossed the brush into a wastebasket and returned to the bathroom for her clothing.
The old man wrote out a check for her for the sum they had agreed on. He was ashamed to sign his name, but he signed it and handed it to her. Ms. Perry slipped the check into her large purse and left.
He thought that in her way she was not a bad-looking woman, though she lacked grace. The old man then asked himself, “Is there nothing more to my life than it is now? Is this all that is left to me?”
The answer seemed to be yes, and he wept at how old he had so quickly become.
Afterwards he removed the towel over his canvas and tried to fill in her face, but he had already forgotten it.

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