Black Velvet by Andrew Wyeth
Tony went to the museum. He was there to see the Helga paintings. He read in Time Magazine about Mr. Wyeth dying and leaving all these paintings behind. Secret paintings of his mistress. Tony admired Mrs. Wyeth for letting the paintings go public, her calm attitude seemed to say to the world that what mattered most was her husband’s art and not his betrayal.
Tony liked museums, he didn’t necessarily like art. He liked the echo of voices in the halls, he liked the sparseness of the building, it quieted his mind. He had a lot going on in his mind all the time, and museums were one place where he could settle the nervous chatter in his head. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and despite the media frenzy over the paintings, the hall where Helga hung was almost barren of people, much like any of Mr. Wyeth’s paintings, great yellow hills in winter with only a boy in a coonskin cap and many-buttoned Civil War era wool coat to catch the wind.
It was paintings by Pollack and Jasper Johns that appealed most to Tony, he didn’t care for people in his art, much like his life, he spent most of his time alone. Alone in his apartment. Alone in the library stacks, where he found books that were falling to pieces—he would carefully place them on his cart and wheel them to the bindery in the basement of the library. There were no windows in the bindery, so Tony would lose track of time with his glue and paper cutting tools. He would assess the books. Were there pages missing? Sometimes it was possible to find replacement pages through other binderies. There was a network of people like Tony, calling, emailing, “Does anyone have pages 61 and 78 of Moby Dick?” And eventually someone would write back, “Tony, which edition? I have five different Moby Dick’s here!” Tony never threw a book away, no matter how many pages were torn or missing, because someone, somewhere, might need a page to repair their copy, a copy that could live again. It was like organ donation. The old worn books waited in a dark corner of the bindery to give life to another book far far away.
But Tony liked Helga. Who could resist her? There by the window, the sad January light of Wyeth’s Pennsylvania illuminating her Viking face. Her blond hair braided and resting on her shoulders. In one painting, she glows like a jar of summer honey, wearing nothing but a black ribbon around her neck, she reclines on her back, her face turned away, her legs crossed at the ankle softly on a dark bed . . . Tony couldn’t stop looking at the painting, because it was Helga who was providing the light in that room, the room where Wyeth painted her. This brought Tony to tears. He had never cried at the sight of a painting before, but this painting shredded him. He was witnessing Beauty. And Love.
The lady in the Museum Shoppe wrapped the book of Wyeth paintings in gray tissue paper and made small talk with Tony, something he was uncomfortable with, “They say it might snow tonight, wouldn’t that be lovely? A nice dusting for New Years.”
“Yes, I suppose it would be. But it makes things difficult.” Tony handed his credit card to the woman.
“Difficult?” She cocked her head at him and then proceeded to make the charge on his card.
“Yes, difficult.” He signed the receipt, she handed him the bag.
That night, just as the lady in the shop had predicted, a light snow began to fall. Tony looked out his window and considered staying home. But his mind was restless and his nightly drives had become the only thing to really calm him, to help him sleep. Ten-thirty came and went, and when eleven arrived, the snow began to come down harder. Tony paced and then? He decided to chance it. He rode the elevator down to the parking garage and found the place empty, just as he had hoped. He went to his car, and opened the door, and doused the interior light. Quickly, purposely, he took off his clothes. First, his shoes, then his socks, finding the asphalt floor of the garage very cold, he hurried and peeled off his sweater, his t-shirt, and then his pants and his boxer shorts. He slid into the driver’s seat and held all his clothes on his lap for a moment, and then, he folded each item and placed them on the passenger seat, finishing the pile with his shoes on top.
He started the little car, a Honda Civic, two-doors, silver, with gray interior. The heat worked quite nicely and tonight would put it to the test. He drove toward the door of the garage and the motion detector sensed him and the big doors rattled up and out he went into the snowy night. The snow was blowing and twisting and the light of the street lamps and the head lights, even the light from the windows of Tony’s neighborhood was causing a cacophony in his view. But Tony steeled himself, he knew it would only be a couple of miles before he could turn onto 21 North, and then there would be nothing but trees, and fields, and stone walls. He felt delighted by the snow, he was glad he had made the effort.
Tony had been driving naked at night for five years now. He never thought he could carry on for that many years without being caught, without being found out, but somehow, he had succeeded. It was one of the only things he felt capable at, besides binding books, but he didn’t consider himself a great book binder, he was mediocre at best, and not as careful as some binders he had met. But in driving naked, he had found something in himself, a liberation, and something akin to what others achieved in meditation, a quiet mind.
Not long after seeing the Helga paintings, Tony walked past the bulletin board near the Circulation desk, and a flyer caught his eye, Models Needed for Life Drawing Class, No Experience Necessary. Tony stopped and shifted his backpack from one shoulder to the other. And then he tore one of the tabs with a phone number off the bottom of the flyer, “Gonna try some modeling Tony?” It was Emily, from the Circulation Desk, she was tiny and blond, and she spun by Tony like top when she said this.
“Um, noooo, its for a friend Emily.”
"Ohhh Kaaayy!" Emily saluted Tony and disappeared into the back of the Circulation department, where all the books patiently waited to be reshelved.
Tony folded the little piece of paper in his hand and put it in his shirt pocket. He was horrified that Emily had seen him take the number. She was the kind of girl he wished he could talk to, just talk to, perhaps over a sandwich and a Coke, but never in a million years. All he could muster was calling her on the interlibrary phone to tell her he had some books ready to be reshelved and could she send a student to pick them up? Sometimes Emily came to the bindery herself to pick up the books, and it was always most uncomfortable. She came in one afternoon when he was making a box. He made boxes frequently, boxes for books, and sometimes for the Periodical librarians, they loved to put things in boxes. His boxes were very precise and colorful. The library gave him a healthy budget for quality papers and archival glue, and he took advantage of this to procure excellent box making materials. Emily noticed the red box he was making for a book in Special Collections, ”Oh, what a marvelous box! I didn’t know you made all the boxes.“ Tony shifted in his seat, he felt his cheeks flush.
"I do, but not all the boxes."
"Would you make a box for me?"
"I, I, I suppose so, what kind of box do you need?"
"Oh a box for cards on my desk. Oh! And a matching box for all my pencils! I collect pencils you know. People leave them all over the library. Here’s my newest pencil." Emily took the pencil that was resting neatly behind her left ear and held it under the lamp of Tony’s desk, it was a transparent pencil, filled with water and a plastic Orca floating inside -- it said Sea World on one side in turquoise blue letters, "This might be the best pencil yet!" She said putting it back behind her ear.
Tony made two boxes for Emily and when they were done he gave them to one of her student shelvers to deliver. Emily sent him an email to thank him for the boxes and he never deleted the message. He kept it in a special folder he named Emily.
The little piece of paper with the number sat on Tony’s kitchen table by the bowl of sugar for quite some time before he got the nerve to call. A very brusk man answered the phone, "Yes, hello!"
"Hello, I’m calling about the flyer, um, for models for the life drawing class."
"Yes, well, we don’t need anyone anymore." Tony was relieved to hear this, but then the man paused and didn’t say good bye, instead, he went on, "But wait, are you a man?"
"Well, yes, yes I am."
"We only have women! We need a man for the class! What's your name?"
"Tony, Tony Gray. But, but I’m afraid I don’t have a very good build."
"Oh, that’s not necessary, we want all body types. As long as you can take off your clothes and sit still."
"I think I can do that." Tony panicked as he said this, he suddenly realized what he was signing up for.
"We can’t pay you very much, thirty dollars per class, maybe. The students contribute to your pay."
"Oh, that will be fine, um, when . . ."
"Tomorrow night, 7:45, Studio B in the Arts Center, do you know how to get here?"
"Yes, yes I know where that is." Tony hung up the phone. His only hope was that he would know no one in the class.
Tony drove far into the country that night, farther than he had ever driven on Highway 21. He stopped near a field only a few miles from the state line. There was more snow, piled high on the sides of the road, making high banks, he found a place to pull off and cut his headlights. He sat there with the little engine of the Honda whirring like a sewing machine. The stars were so numerous that he almost thought it was snowing again. He looked down at his naked body, pale and fat and torrid in the dim light reflecting off the dash board, "Helga, what do I do Helga?" But no one answered him.
Tony hadn’t eaten all day, and he felt slightly faint when he arrived at Studio B. But he thought it better to faint from low blood sugar than to become nauseous and hurl in front of everyone in the class, "Tony? Are you Tony?" It was Tom, the instructor. Tony was struck by Tom’s lanky stature, he seemed to be seven feet tall, but perhaps it was the lack of food that made Tony feel as though he were sinking. "You are right on time, my students will be getting here soon. The dressing room is over there, just Take It Off! As we like to say, and settle into any comfortable position you like. First timers find it easiest to sit in the chair."
"Yes, uh, yes, sitting in the chair will be fine. Almost like sitting in a car." Tony felt as though his feet were frozen to the floor.
"What? Oh, yes, I suppose, if you find sitting in a car to be comfortable, then, yes, imagine you are sitting in a car. Naked, oh dear, how funny is that?" Tom began laughing and Tony tried to laugh with him, "You know, I hear, there are people who do that."
"Weirdos, who drive around naked, flashing people, that kind of thing." Tom winked and laughed, "What a world, eh, Tony?"
"Uh, yes, hrmm, yes." Tony nodded and turned, he pushed the black velvet curtain back on the dressing room and took a deep breath. He decided to become Helga for the night, it was his only chance of surviving, to Be Helga. As he undressed, he heard the voices of students as they came in the studio. It became apparent that most of the voices were women. Tony folded his clothes and piled them on the small ottoman in the dressing room. He piled them just liked he piled them on the seat of his car, with his loafers on top. I am Helga tonight, I am Helga, driving her car, he told himself and pushed back the curtain of the dressing room, feeling as though he were a magician stepping onto the stage, but amazingly his audience didn’t seem to care. They were all occupied with preparing their easels and charcoals and inks and gossip. Tony made the walk across the room to the stuffed red chair in the center as though he were invisible. It was not unlike the feeling he had while driving in his car naked at night, traffic all around him, but no one aware of him, and his lack of clothing. He lowered himself in the chair and wondered how many models had sat in this chair, this made him slightly uneasy, he hoped they were clean, he didn’t care for dirty people. He crossed his legs and put one arm up on the chair, as though it were the open window of his Honda. Tom began the class, "Good evening everyone, our model tonight is Tony."
"Hello Tony!" They all shouted. Tony couldn’t reply, all he could do was nod his head, I’m Helga, I’m Helga, I’m driving my car.
The night ended, Tony dressed and the students left, all except one woman. Tom was critiquing her rendering of Tony. Tony heard her say one thing to Tom as he went out the door, "I’m going to call it Nude in Decline!" And there was much laughter. Tony never went back.
Spring came and with it budget cuts at the library. There were long memos regarding changes to be made, belts to be tightened.. Acquisitions would be mercilessly cut, student staff would be reduced, and for the first time ever, the library would be closed on Mondays. Tony was told to make do with the papers and materials he had purchased in the previous quarter. No more archival glue or fine handmade papers for binding, and the Periodical Department would have to do with the boxes they already had, no more box making until further notice. Staff birthday parties would be postponed and the Library Display Committee would be discontinued. Morale was low. But Emily remained spunky and suggested they send postcards to patrons asking them to donate new Bestsellers and magazine subscriptions to the Periodicals Department. Emily would go places Tony thought—some day, she might be mayor, or at least on the City Council, she was just made to lead.
All this stress caused Tony to drive more. Driving naked was the only thing that kept him centered these days. He wondered if he might lose his job, he kept telling himself he wouldn’t, because they needed to fix the old books, what with no new books coming in. But there were some, some in high places, the Librarians with PhDs, who didn’t care for Tony. He was just a paper sewing guy, they would see a way to outsource his work, he was certain of it. So he took to the road, and he considered, now that his Mondays were free, the possibility of driving naked in the daylight. This would be quite risky, but he had not seen 21 North with the sun upon its fields and trees and stone walls. He was tired of guessing whether there were cows in the fields. And better yet, horses! He knew that he could drive up there, out of the city, unnoticed and unfettered by clothes. He came up with a plan.
Monday came and Tony took the elevator down to the garage. There were people about and the door was open to the street as it was on weekdays, he would not be able to undress here. He would have to drive out of the city. But he did remove his shoes and his socks. And he took off his sweater. He was tempted to take off his shirt, but the Security Guard was watching him. Tony started the car and quickly scooted out onto the city streets. He was very anxious to undress, the red lights seemed to last far too long, but finally he turned on to 21 and at the first mile marker, he pulled off the road, under a large maple tree that was exploding in green. The sun was brilliant and unlike Mr. Wyeth’s paintings, the fields were not covered in Painters Gray and barren frost, they were offering up crocuses and periwinkle. Tony had a hell of a time getting his pants off without getting out of the car, and he wondered how he could improve his plan. But, finally, he was relieved of all his clothes and they sat neatly folded on the passenger seat. He started up the car and stepped on the gas. In the light of day, he found a turn he had never taken, Bedlam Lake Turnkpike. He had only seen the lake on a map. Today, he would drive to its shores, and perhaps, take a swim?
The turnpike was wide and smooth, Tony rolled down his windows and took in the air which smelled of hemlock . . . the lake shores were thick with the bluish pines that made him think of Christmas with their oily smell. A sign directed Tony to detour, and Tony obliged and turned onto a gravel road, he was oblivious to any worries. The Honda rattled and clanged along the little road, the road got narrower and narrower. And finally it came to a picnic area, with a small beach looking out on the lake. Tony parked the car and listened. There was nothing, not a sound. A crow cawed. That was it. Tony fell asleep with the sun pouring in his windshield.
"Tony! Tony is that you?" Tony woke with a start. There was a soft rain falling and the sun was sinking into the other side of the lake. A woman was calling his name. It was Emily! She was with her boyfriend in his Range Rover. Tony sat up, consciousness was coming to him now, how long have I been asleep? He looked down at himself and then back toward the Rover. Emily opened her door and called again, "Hey Tony! Fancy meeting you up here at the lake!" She began striding toward his car.
"Oh oh, Emily!" Tony started the car, he needed to get away, but the Honda choked at his turning of the key, please please start!
"Mel and I came up for a hike with the dogs, want to come with us?" She kept approaching, the dogs followed her out of the Rover, they came running to Tony’s car, big dogs, Golden Retrievers, they jumped on the car, practically in the window. "Hey you guys! Get off Tony’s car!!!! Sorry Tony, they’re so obnoxious!" Tony turned the key again. Nothing. The car was dead. He must have left the radio on. Emily came closer. The dogs were snuffling and reaching for Tony. He didn’t like dogs, Never had. He pushed at them, but they only became more excited. Emily was almost upon him, she looked so pretty in her hiking boots and a flowered dress. Her blond hair was in braids, she looked like Helga. There was nothing he could do, except wait for her.