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soul of fine art

The Man with the Dog

Act II: Madame DeFarge

 

Uprooting from the steep mountainside of the Hollywood Hills back to the East Coast in one hectic month had been a feverish undertaking. Shipping art and personal items across the country took organization and money. The only way to pay for leaving LA was to shed my worldly goods—most of them anyway.

My economic situation was in shambles, a calculated fiscal risk I had made. As counterpoint to my finances, my soul soared. After decades of searching, I had finally hit pay dirt; I had found myself in a way that was completely unexpected, a supreme dividend of my ventures in paradise. Some people spend money on luxury cars. For less than the sticker price of a Ford Taurus, fully-loaded, I had made an investment in me with the help of credit card cash advances, and I was appreciating in value. It was only a matter of time until life’s purpose began paying off. In the meantime, I had to face other realities.

I had done the math. I priced my custom made furniture and a household full of possessions to sell quickly. As with all plans, I ran into unexpected setbacks. Few Angelinos wanted to trek upward to the Hollywood Hills for a moving sale. I did manage a few sales to a trickle of intrepid bargain hunters. The thrill of incoming cash was short-lived, summarily offset by professional thieves who stole my computer and camera equipment during the last garage sale weekend. I had lots of items of considerable value left. A donation to a charity was good for the soul and would help others.

Selling off your belongings is a lot like attending your own wake while still in your mortal coil. It might not be a desirable situation, but it was liberating. I had decided back in high school that nothing would be wasted on me, and that included experience, for better or worse. I’m no complainer by nature or a newcomer to life-altering encounters. The garage sale was the tail end of my second pilgrimage to California. I was coming home, once again.

The first time I had broken free from New Jersey for California was in the winter of 1980. I had the perfect superficial life, a well-paying job, and a beautiful wife. I wanted to write; I wanted adventure. She wouldn’t budge to a new place unless she had a doorman, and I had a good job waiting. I shed the corporate trappings, the wife, and the doorman, and drove west to Los Angeles. The San Andreas Fault and I were linked. We both needed to relieve pressure; my stress was a strain on a restless heart. I knew I was something more but didn’t know what—grist for self-discovery.

My intuition was right; intuition always is because it is a direct communication from the soul. In order to grow and thrive, a living thing needs the right climate. The Golden State, the geologically turbulent youngster of the continental USA, was the eclectic real estate essential for my rite of passage. I had grown up on the mean streets, learning first-hand about the lower depths and my own dark side. Without temptation, you cannot fully know yourself. The past is old. There was more to know, more to experience, more tests to encounter. In California, I would confront my character again, life lessons I had to discover for myself as a man, as a writer, as an individual who had traded in the illusion of a secure life for a meaningful life on the edge.

After four years in LA, I did accumulate exciting and unique experiences. I had become the managing editor of a high profile men’s porno magazine. I also became the editor of business magazine run by a playboy who threw in a new Corvette as part of the compensation package. After my first day on the job, I recall leaning against the sports car on one of the busy boulevards in Century City. The late afternoon sun turned the glass skyscrapers a brilliant orange. I had everything: money, a girl, and a great job. This was it. I was on the top of the world. At least, it seemed that way in the twilight glow reflecting off the new Corvette.

Time passed.

After butting heads with the playboy over ethics, the job went and so did the Corvette. I spent a long summer in Europe and the Greek Islands with Sandra, a buxom massage therapist.

We were on Mykonos, one of the bleached white Greek Islands with working windmills. It was late afternoon. I had decided to rent a scooter. With Sandra holding on tightly, I drove along a series of dirt backroads until we reached the remote nude beach area called Paradise Cove. There were no more than forty sun worshiping souls spread out along the secluded cove—mostly German and French tourists. The sand felt like talcum powder on bare feet. We hopped off the scooter and quickly pitched our small tent in the camping area just as sunset had flicked a switch to night. With no artificial city lights to dim the nightly heavens, the cosmos formed a fantastic 180-degree dome overhead with stars and galaxies blinking across eons, time travelers from a primordial past.

The Mediterranean was warm and curious fish were swimming right up to the shoreline.

“Oh, my god, “Sandra yelped. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She ran naked into the lapping surf, her bouncy shape a dark silhouette against the Aegean evening. “Come on Axel,” she called out. “We can do it in the water.”

Sandra was a Christian Scientist and a collective contradiction, ebulliently exuding sexuality one minute, repression the next. She was not a good traveling companion, given to mood swings that ranged from sweet and sexy to harsh and nasty. She was my test in unconditional love. I learned that I had conditions. There were reasons to give someone your love. The rest was new age crap. It was a relief to let her go when we returned to the states. I don’t want to make light of her. She did things that caused me lots of pain. But each time I had taken her back, adhering to the unconditional love credo.

Eventually, I saw my own weakness.

I grew and time did heal.

Back in Los Angeles, I dipped my toes into new associations. One weekday evening I was in a small building on Santa Monica Boulevard that housed a Samadhi Tank business. Three males and four females made up the Samadhi staff. They were all in their early twenties, wore company tee shirts and were a humorless lot. Several middle-aged women were waiting their turn in the tanks. A tall, lean woman kept eyeing me. The tanks were sensory deprivation devices contrived by mind explorer John Lily. The idea was to float naked in an enclosed dark tank filled with salt water.

After a while, the body naturally began to experience the lack of its normal sensory input. The floater would presumably encounter “altered states”—which the movie of the same name sensationalized in graphic form.

After my tank experience, which was relaxing, I showered and returned to the waiting area where you paid for your time in the tank.

“How did you like your experience?” asked one of the Samadhi drones.

“Good, but I felt the water could have used a bit more salt,” I said.

No response to my joke.

Suddenly, I heard a mild chuckle. Did I actually get through to one of these people?

I turned. The tall woman who had eyed me earlier wore a devilish smile. She was Madame Cleo DeFarge, a wealthy and twisted new age dowager whom I would get to know. We talked. She invited me to have Sushi with her on Sunset Boulevard, just to talk. She had invested over $50,000 in the Samadhi franchise, she admitted, and hadn’t seen a penny back on her investment. She’d been swindled, she said.

A few months later, we become partners. Business from my end . . . she had other schemes. I gave up my townhouse in Santa Monica and moved into her modest size mansion in the Hollywood Hills. I had a huge bedroom, waterbed, maid service, and a pool—the works.

One early morning, I awoke, feeling someone’s hand around my waist. I jumped, spooked. Lying next to me naked was Madame DeFarge.

“I’m not a bad person, am I?” DeFarge said matter-of-factly, a question she would come to ask me at least once a day.

In her heart, she must have known she was evil, loaning money to this one and that one, knowing she’d never get paid. But getting paid back was never her plan. Going after her creditors, haunting them with long letters of why she was wonderful and why they were not living up to their spiritual agreements. All bullshit.

“Hell, no. You’ve got good qualities,” I would answer, half believing it. I had a motive. I wanted to make a go of this windfall. She had been squandering her inheritance for years. I would make the money useful for a change. I was good at making things happen.

I was eager to change the world for the better and her funds would help pay the way. My sights were high with idealistic visions. I didn’t realize then that I needed to save myself first.

Fate intervened.

Drew was a small time hustler, author, and a self-proclaimed gem expert. At every opportunity, he made it his business to invite the DeFarge woman and me to meet an artist.

“You won’t regret it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Drew. “He’s the real thing. It’s like meeting Picasso.”

One evening, when there was a rare lull in the ongoing parade of new age guests who visited the mansion, the timing was right. DeFarge and I drove to the artist’s house and studio in the Valley where we met Uncle Jack, the artist, and his family—his wife, his children, and his French mistress.

Up until that moment, the power of art had not yet entered my life. I knew nothing of art, nothing of its true significance.

I had no expectations. But that night opened my eyes. Uncle Jack, it turned out, was a clear mirror for all who stood in his path. As the evening progressed, I could see how disturbed and evil DeFarge really was.

As we drove home, DeFarge said: “Did you see how that man spoke to me? Who the hell does he think he is?”

I drove the car back to Hollywood in silence, knowing something had started of immense proportions. Uncle Jack had said nothing out of line. He had put DeFarge in her place with the truth. She continued to complain about Uncle Jack until we entered the house.

Uncle Jack, I thought. I’d be seeing him again. What was it about him that I liked? I knew. I could relax in his presence. For the first time in my life I had met someone who knew much more than I did—not facts, but the nature of things, the nature of people. I could learn from him.

Despite DeFarge’s bogus complaints about Uncle Jack’s rude behavior toward her, we made a few more visits to the artist’s home. Then, one evening, after the ceremonial calumet had been passed around for a turbo hit of grass, it was decided. Madame DeFarge would become Uncle Jack’s student of art. She has always wanted to improve her painting.

I felt relieved. I’d finally have some breathing room four afternoons a week for a while.

“I could never make the paintings alive like Uncle Jack,” she said.

And for good reason, I thought. The dowager lacked a soul.

That first early afternoon, I waved to the Madame as she left for her art lesson with the master in the Valley. Except for Julie, the housekeeper, the mansion was mercifully empty of activity. No freeloading new age nudniks loitering in search of food, drugs, or a place to crash. No gurus, no fortunetellers, no paranormal channelers, no clairvoyants, no healers, no chakra balancers, no psychics, no one with “the” answer.

Thank God.

I put on my swimming trunks and decided to relax out by the pool under the shade of the gazebo that featured beautifully hard-carved reliefs of erotic positions from India. A fine summer breeze felt alive on my skin. The wind chimes rang in tune with nature as musky incense burned and a Ravi Shankar CD played sitar. I leaned back, eyes closed. An abundance of throw pillows lined the gazebo. I sank down deep into the mega-cushion.

There was nothing to do, nothing to say. I was being in the here and now.

I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to a purr and a hand gently rubbing on my groin.

“Don’t move, don’t open your eyes,” said the very familiar voice. “I’ve been thinking about you for months. I want to make it good for you. I’ve learned how to give great head. I can give you whatever you want . . . and I’ll love doing it.” Sandra had slipped into the gazebo like a breeze. Her hand was under my trunks and I was merely mortal. I felt around. Her top was off. Big bare breasts pressing against my body. She mouthed me well and finished off my mushroom with aplomb. I didn’t ask where she’d learned.

I gasped at the final seizure, at the fact that this repressed gal had overcome her fear of flying. My eyes opened. She swallowed, too.

“God, Sandra. Where have you been?”

“Like I said, I’ve been getting ready for you.”

I would have liked to say we can pick up the pieces, but I couldn’t trust her. If she’d been so free with me, she done the whole fleet. I wasn’t making judgments. I was learning from my mistakes.

“Thanks for the present, but it can’t be the same,” I said.

Her eyes welled up with tears. “I’ve been learning just for you. I’ve given up Christian Science. I’m your slut.”

I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. “I don’t want to mislead you. Make someone else happy.”

She said: “You bastard. You’ll never find a babe like me. Not ever. Not ever.”

Sandra pulled her top up and ran off, passing a gloomy Madame DeFarge walking toward me. It was much too early for her lesson to be over. This was not good news, I thought.

Tears were rolling that afternoon. Crying and sniffing, DeFarge crawled into the Gazebo and leaned her head in my lap. She stopped whimpering long enough to say: “What was that Sandra doing here? She’s such a bimbo. I don’t know how she could possibly interest someone as smart as you.”

I let it go.

“What’s wrong,” I said.

“He insulted me. I’m not going back for any more art lessons. I want my money back.”

Something smelled. Why would Uncle Jack insult her? “What did he say?” I said.

“He told me I had no talent.”

“That’s it?”

“I told him that he couldn’t speak to someone like me that way.”

“And . . .,” I said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“He said: `Well, exactly who are you lady? You have no talent. You only have money and you probably pay your bills on time.’”

“I’ll see Uncle Jack tomorrow,” I said. “Why don’t you go and rest up.”

This was an insult? It was precisely the truth. Uncle Jack had already infiltrated my life and I knew a big storm was coming.

Madame DeFarge got up. “I feel better now. I think I’ll see what Julie’s cooking up in the kitchen. Take good care of that Uncle Jack. I’m counting on you Axel.”»

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