If I remember correctly—and I believe I do—I asked Christina to bring the agreement with her to Grand Central Station for an initial meeting about a week before Christmas. Arrive with it signed, if you don’t mind, I told her over the phone. We found a table in the food court on the lower level and sat down together, and I explained right away that my reasoning behind having her sign the agreement wasn’t so much about my being secretive, or wanting to hide behind a legal document, but really because the document would allow me to maintain—I believe I said—an appearance of intentional isolation. Thanks to the agreement, I could share my thoughts with her without resorting to self-editing—I believe I used that exact phrase, self-editing—and then she smiled slightly as I went on to explain that I wasn’t a secretive person. I’m not a soul inclined to withhold, I said. As a matter of fact, I’m the kind of person who feels compelled to make confessions, and perhaps by having you sign this piece of paper I’m building a structure in which my secrets can be kept externally, outside my own mind, so, for example, if I start to tell you about my family, meaning my sisters and my parents, I’ll do so knowing that my words, while being heard, will also be reaching a safe, terminal home. Whereas if you refused to sign that agreement, I said, pointing to the contract in her hands, I might feel compelled to begin confessing this and that anyway, partly out of a sense that you’re a good listener, and I can tell you are by the way you touch your ear now and then, adjusting your hair away from your cheeks (she had a habit of taking a strand or two of her long, auburn hair and tweezing, tweezing, and then carefully, with deliberateness that I found absurdly charming, placing it behind her ear, which was small, shell-like, and delicate.). If you don’t sign the contract, I’ll view you as a conduit to the outside world. Because that’s the way I work. I mean I’ve had a habit in the past of talking to people—usually untrustworthy people—with an awareness that, for example, when I tell them that my father was a bad drunk, and that he fell down the stairs one winter afternoon when I was fifteen and broke three ribs, and that I was the one who dialled for the police, they’ll take that information, share it with others, embellishing, bending my words into their own (his father was a junkie, and fell down the stairs and broke six ribs), and then pass it on to someone who will do the same until the story I originally told no longer relates to my past but to the past of several imaginary people, floating around out there as a story about* my* father.
I told her this, and, as a way of giving another example, told her about the time my sister stole a cheque out of a mailbox. I described the mailbox, one of those apartment mailboxes with the little slot for the name and address, with a useless, small cellophane window, and a key that only the mailman was supposed to have, along, perhaps, with the building super, and how he opened up a long row of boxes all at once. I explained how my sister stole the key from the super’s office, or, perhaps she got there when the mailman arrived and grabbed it when he wasn’t looking (I wasn’t sure, I added) and then very carefully took the cheque back to her room at the halfway house and forged a signature. It was a government child support cheque for five hundred dollars, and she cashed it at the bank down the street from her halfway house, not far from the Michigan state capitol building. What’s important, I believe I told Christina, is that one wouldn’t think my sister would have the skill to pull it off, not only to forge the signature but also to take it to a teller and persuade her, or him, to cash it without the proper identification. Anyway, I believe I said, You see, if we didn’t have the non-disclosure agreement I’d tell you this story and then you’d tell someone else, and I trust you’d stick mostly to the facts because you seem like the trustworthy type, but they wouldn’t stick to the facts. To add some zest to my original version, they’d say my sister stole a thousand dollars. They’d say she was a kind of idiot savant, brilliant at forgery, able to replicate just about any kind of document, and then someone else, passing it on, would make it a mailbox at the house of some renowned Michigan personage, a state senator, perhaps, and they’d describe how she snuck up to the front door on a clear, cool fall day, or perhaps they’d even make it in my hometown instead of Lansing, because they’d know at least that fact about my past, and they’d be telling it with a relish that comes from passing an inside bit of gossip about a reclusive artist, one who has been obsessively panting scenes of the Pennsylvania countryside for the last fifteen years.
In the past—I explained to Christina—my mouth was a conduit for the flow of information outward. In the past I told personal anecdotes that were carefully shaped to allow for the future filling in, or, rather, fictionalisation, by souls who didn’t know me. I took into account the way a bit of narrative might get passed from a close friend, a kind-hearted person with the best intentions, to someone removed from me who would take the story and turn it against me, so that somehow I would be implicated in the story. For example, a mean-hearted person might say that I was the one who taught my sister how to forge a decent cheque, and how to persuade a teller to cash the cheque. (I did teach her how to forge a cheque, and I did talk to her about the nature of teller work and how to be usefully confusing in a transaction at the counter, but that’s beside the point.)
Then we were on our second coffee and she explained (in a voice that I now see was slightly too firm, too officious, I think) that she would be delighted to be my assistant, and that whatever I said—and she said this, I swear—would stay in her mind, and in her mind only, from that moment on, for the rest of time itself (she said that: the rest of time) and then she seemed to blush, touched her ear again and ever so gently lifted her cup and sipped in what seems to me now, looking back, to have been a conspiratorial gesture, as if between us the confidentiality agreement was not only words on the page but a sacred blood sealing—ah, I don’t know how to put this!—as if our future together were inexplicably entwined with the fact that whatever I told her about my work, my plans for a new sequence of paintings, or the fact that I felt fraudulent on occasion, would stay tucked away in some corner of her mind forever. Yes, right. I’ll die with your words still in my mind, she said, laughing lightly, shaking the contract, which rested in her hands, waiting to be passed over to me.
Like I said, it was a holiday. Grand Central was a bustle of consumption. A few tables away, in a dark corner, a homeless man was resting with his head on his bag, snoring softly. Another man—dressed in a ragged army-issue coat—was resting casually with his hip against a trash can, looking across the room while his hand, down at his side, groped steadily for some something in the trash. At another table, a woman in a bright red coat, her face still flushed from the cold, sat forlornly with a paper cup of soup in her palm, holding it high as she spooned it into her mouth. The two cops at the table across from us sat at a slightly odd angle, facing in our direction, hands flat on the tabletop, sitting straight up in what seemed to be an officious posture, glancing my way from time to time with speculative, accusatory eyes, as if they had built a case against me—based on all of the rumours, I think I thought—and were waiting to strike when the time was right. From the hip of the one closest to me the handcuffs dangled, jiggling slightly.
The contract was a single page, copied on both sides—a standard confidentiality agreement (or non-disclosure agreement) with boilerplate lingo, heretos and therefores in a stately font—that my dealer had given me to send to her, and it looked, in her fingers, feeble and delicate. Her nails were bright green and her thin fingers had small flecks of paint on one knuckle. When I looked up she looked away from me with an abstracted, vague glance, her lips pressed softly together, puckered, and then she turned and met my gaze as if to say: Look inside my skull, fucker, and you’ll see where your words are going to go and you’ll see, in the soft, grey matter, in that spongy matter, the exact place where I’ll keep them (your words) forever, and when I’m dead, rest assured, this grey matter will decay, along with it the things you told me and the things I witnessed as your assistant. (Later, when she was in my studio in Pennsylvania, I would tell her that I felt, at times, like a half-baked Andrew Wyeth, and that at times I felt that my appropriating his life was somewhat dubious. My appropriation of Wyeth was my shtick—I’d say—the entire thing, right down to painstakingly reconstructing his 19th century schoolhouse studio at Chadds Ford on my own plot of land on Long Island, and calling most of my models Olga, and using one of his original, albeit much older now, local models. I swear, and this might seem absurd but it’s true, that even there in Grand Central, with two cops seated at the table next to us, I foresaw the fact that I’d use the word shtick and then confess that I felt, at times, completely fraudulent.)
At Grand Central that afternoon, sitting down in the food court, just after she touched the contract, just before she picked it up and handed it to me, waving it in the air so that it twisted into the shape of a boat hull, I believe I said to Christina: I have a feeling that in a few weeks, most likely at my studio in Pennsylvania, which as you know is actually in Long Island, some extremely personal confessions of mine will put me in a bad light—even for you—and if that confession were to be released into the public mind, or passed on, as I explained, it would hurt my career, not only now—I mean saleswise—but also its critical reception in the future. So I’m saying now, I mean I’m telling you this now as a way to abnegate the mirror—ah, I don’t know what I’m saying, I said, and right at that moment, after I spoke and before she spoke, I felt the threshold between us that had been created not only by the contract itself, which was legally binding as soon as she passed it to me, but also by the exchange we had just had and by the milieu itself, the jaunty, holiday vibe in the air, and, Jesus, it was in the air, the music was going and commerce apparent in the ceremonial bustle of movement up the escalator over her head, and in and out of doorways to my right as folks poured out of trains and headed to the streets and, some of them, up Fifth Avenue to some event at Rockefeller Center. Gifts were being purchased, wrapped up, tucked into bags and conveyed to the station while we sat together having our meeting, making a secretive, totally incognito mutual agreement. There wasn’t a boundary between us, but rather a threshold just above her mouth, starting at her lips and spreading to her nose and up to her eyes and then out to her ears, which months later, I imagined as I sat there, I might attempt to kiss while she stood listening to me at the window in the studio. A threshold through which my words would pass, entering the confines in which they would rest forever so long as she maintained the terms of the contract, which I gently unfolded and turned over as I examined her signature: the aggressive looping curl of her C and the soft snakes of her S and the cross of her I tapering off to a tiny A, as if her strength had given out at the end. In general it was a weak signature. It started strong but flagged in the end.
What else can I do—I believe I thought—but entrust myself to this signature and these clauses and the expression she gives of being willing to hold my words and actions and to retain them, to refuse to release them into the world? And then I said, I think, Look, you’ll also have to keep to yourself—I mean as part of this agreement—everything you see, not only in my workspace but in the house and out in the field. My process, I mean. You’ll have to keep quiet about that, I said, and then I sat there and imagined that we’d go out to the stone wall and follow it slowly for an entire afternoon, quietly (a brisk, but relatively bleak autumn afternoon, with a long scrim of clouds smearing the western horizon, at the bottom of the slough), trying to find the exact right subject for my next study. I’d have her put an old whaling oar on the top of the wall. I already knew this, sitting there in Grand Central. I imagined us walking together in that quiet reverie as I pondered the wall and she, in turn, pondered me as I pondered the wall, as I searched for an inspirational quirk in the set of the stones, the handiwork of some lonely man a hundred years ago, some farmer with resolve and grit, a clenched-mouthed man with a furrowed brow and whiskers on his chin and that weather-beaten, New England, wiseacre gravitas. (Like Wyeth, I saw faces in the corn! I saw a toothless man in a stalk without the kernels exposed! I saw a toothy woman in peeled back folds exposing kernels!)
Christina sat across from me with her face suddenly serene, and a slight down of peach fuzz on her upper cheeks and her earlobes. She had fantastic lobes. They were pendulous and out of proportion to her delicate ears, but not in a way that detracted—somehow, miraculously, I later thought—from the symmetry, which much later would remind me for some reason of the shape of the contract itself just before she handed it over. (If I have one talent, it’s an acute memory for shapes, for the strange, intricate spaces between objects. I can still remember a particular set of stones in a wall not far from a small town called Edale, in England’s Peak District, where I went in the summer to sketch some studies before I officially began to appropriate Andrew Wyeth. I remember the path and the cattle gate, with the MIND THE GATE sign, and the way the fields spread up into a sharp grade and then, over the hump of the hill, began rolling way down into what might be called a knoll. About fifty yards from the cattle gate was a wall—built with an urgency that was visible in the set of the stones near the ground—with a spot where the mason, or farmer with great skills, had struggled to make use of two rather large stones, hedging them in, tightening them with a few filler stones, forming a gape of about two inches wide, shaped like a turnip. I still remember that turnip. Not the stones themselves, but the turnip. Just as I remember—now, here alone in my cell, as I like to call it, at the institute, as they like to call it, at the window looking down on the rubber-floored yard with the chain-link fence, where other prisoners, as I like to call them, patients, as they like to call them, smoke and clench the fence, gazing through the trees at the river beyond the roar of the parkway—the exact shape of her lobes in the stale light of the food court.) I imagined in Grand Central that we’d take a direct flight together to Manchester, hire a cab to Edale, and walk that wall at a ridiculously slow pace, and that I’d stop and explain to her that I would know what I was looking for when I saw it, and that I was trying as best I could to get into the obsessive, somewhat reclusive, isolated mind of Wyeth. I’d explain (and I think I did explain) that my goal was to find a state that was even more obsessive and pernickety than Wyeth’s. I’d like to go beyond my capacity to be Andrew Wyeth and in pushing beyond his somewhat narrow, obsessive concentration on his subjects—rolling fields and walls and his models, always lonely looking, slightly abject—I’d surpass him so that if you dialled back in order to account for the fact that I was only appropriating him, I would land squarely on actually being him. I’d explain all of this and then I’d remain silent (and I think I did remain silent) for another hour or so while I waited for the light to shift down into the bottom of the so-called slough. (It wasn’t really a slough. A slough is a swamp. But this was the lowland at the dip in the valley where water often collected.) She’d sit on the ground with her legs tucked beneath her—Christina style—and her head back slightly, craning her neck while I made quick, preliminary studies, lifting my hand up after each stroke with a flourish, making sure she saw absolute concentration and commitment to the end of each stroke.
Your duty, I’d explain as we walked along the wall in Edale, is to watch me work and to record it all in your head and to hold it inside forever without revealing it to anyone, as stipulated in the contract you handed me in Grand Central, and in that manner other people—buyers, art collectors—will feel, without knowing why, the implicit secretiveness of my endeavour at some point in the future, years hence, when all that’s left of my work is the work itself and a parcel (I would use that word, parcel) of biographical information, which will include—because I’m keeping a detailed journal—our meeting in Grand Central and our written agreement, sealed not only in ink but also in my lust and desire, because I’ll record that, too, just as I’ll record that we worked together for years in a union of mutual silence, a marriage of sorts, and that biography will include the fact that you went to your grave—as you said you would—with my secrets. Far in the future your presence in my working life will add not only an element of glamour—is there anything more glamorous than a confidentiality agreement?—but also a sense, around the vow of silence, that there was something fantastically interesting being kept at bay, forever, for eternity, I explained, as she nodded slowly, in what I mistakenly saw as a conspiratorial way, leaning forward slightly. The two cops were getting up from the table across the way, shifting their guts, moving the leather of their belts around. (Reminding me of the time the cops came to arrest my sister, arriving at the door with the same leathery shift of guts.) Down the escalator a woman came with a big red bag resting on the hand rail, and then I’m speaking again, or rather was speaking—and now I’m remembering, of course, not verbatim but as close as I can get, and I was explaining how at times, I mean times like this, I believe I qualified, I’m not sure how much real life can bear art and art real life, because the two entwine themselves only up to a delicate thin line (or point) where memory, desire, and touch start to move away from each other, repelled by the present moment, and then I reached out and took her hand, held it for a minute, and then regally kissed the tops of each of her knuckles and then the tip of each of her fingers, while she seemed—it seems to me now—to hold herself still in a way that reminded me then and, I imagined, would remind me again and again for some reason, not only of that day in Edale when we would walk along the wall, but also innumerable other moments, mainly in my studio back in Chadds Ford, when I would stand back from a painting and try to get a perspective—that ochre, pale dusky light coming through the windows!—while she sat off to the side, quietly (perhaps even bitterly) observant, holding herself at a remove (she had that kind of beauty. She struck delicately quiet poses—with her back straight and her hands at her sides, or on her knees—that seemed to speak of desolate isolation) in a pose that would remind me of Emily Dickinson; the same primness of her visage, a beautiful, resilient tightness in her pose. As I kissed her fingers—weirdly, awkwardly—she presented for the first time that pose. Then, as she listened to my apology, as I explained to her that it wouldn’t happen again and that the agreement she had signed in no way excused me from any kind of abhorrent behaviour, which of course she would not have to keep secret. (Abhorrent behaviour towards you, I explained. Not towards the work, or towards others, or towards the landscape so to speak, I believe I said.) I was anticipating moments of rash destruction to come, because even there—amid that holiday cheer, the tight clip of heels against the smooth floors, the wonderfully anachronistic announcements of the train departures, and the police, who were now getting up from the table, still looking our way—I had a sense that the signed and sealed document on the table between us would allow for certain shared secrets that might or might not cause a tear in the fabric of the universe (call it love, call it whatever you want) on some future date, when whatever she saw and heard was eaten up by worms, or dust, in the boney emptiness of her beautifully shaped skull as it rested beneath the earth. I’ll admit now with full candour that it was an absurdly grand and arrogant thought. It was the kind of thought (I thought) that you could only have in a train station during the holiday season with a beautiful young woman across from you (or a man) who had just signed away whatever secrets you might bestow upon them. It was the kind of thought that brought fire to the mind—for a few seconds—and then fell away into the category of that which is absurd but at the same time true. It was the kind of thought, I thought, that Andrew Wyeth might have had at dawn, as he departed his studio with his sketchbook in hand, while the earth gave off a soft roil of steamy vapor that hid the distant hills and seemed to bring the stone walls closer as he took it all in, feeling honestly established in that landscape, with a sense of agency (a word, I admit, he’d never use), full ownership that came from his ability to paint it in his own manner. It was Andrew Wyeth’s thought and my thought at the same time, as I turned back to the business at hand—my own voice growing authoritative and firm—and went into the finer details of what I’d expect from her as my assistant in the year to come, explaining again, at the risk of redundancy, how rumours might get out, free-floating, shape-shifting, eager to form the perfect case against me as they pass from mind to mind.