Toronto |


by Tim Conley

During their last meal Louis had said that he would call her at the end of the week. Exact words: at the end of the week. Seared bass in his mouth as he spoke, that ought to be taken into account. The week, that would be, wouldn’t it, the week, the same week in which they were dining, not their last meal but the last time they dined. There is no need for drama. It has been a week, in fact counting by hours, needlessly counting by hours, now a few hours more than a week, and that seems an entirely different thing from the week, as in both the working week on which the date of their last meal, the last time they dined, fell, and the span of a calendar week in which the date of, the date on which they last dined together, can be taken as the first day. Which sounds kind of biblical, put like that, but there is no need. She begins a letter that she seriously considers sending to Louis before realizing, or is it remembering, that she doesn’t have a mailing address for him. The letter does not, at first, begin Louis or even Dear Louis. The letter does say that the moon has been replaced, first taken away of course, it’s not as though there are two of them. That it was first taken away can thus be inferred, even Louis with a mouthful of seared bass and the envelope in his jacket, briefly clutched in his hand, even he can appreciate that logic. Even in the roughest draft she did not include all of that, no need. At any rate, the letter explains that the moon now in the sky is not just a tawdry substitute but perhaps a sign of things to come. The spheres, Louis had once assured her, are wholly unmusical. His own words, were they not, just like at the end of the week. Unless he said the end of the weak. If Louis were dead she could understand. How might Louis have died, how would he have died, how could he. It could not be that his phone was disconnected, that would be too simple and rational an explanation, she could be simple and rational enough in her thinking to see that. He had never given his number. Perhaps she had never asked for it. He had told her that he would call her, no, he had in point of fact said that he would call. Intransitive. In transit, on his way to making the call, he had been killed. Run down by a distracted driver, the kind he complains about, or did. The kneeling paramedics, oh, they would discover the envelope. Instead the ground beneath his feet broke away, the earth swallowed him up entirely.
Nearly five months later she is visiting her sister, who is studying art history in Amsterdam. Her sister offers a steady supply of well-meant advice the first two days she is there and on the third they have a heated argument in the middle of the Rijksmuseum. After that she can hardly look at the paintings and when they leave she tells her sister that she is going to go for a walk by herself. Part of her hopes that strangers will abduct or even murder her, but she tells her sister that she will be fine and will be back at the apartment in time for dinner. It is a chilly city of bicycles in bondage, she decides. She has not been having a good time, which is what her sister promised she would have, and come to think of it, she is not entirely sure if she could say just what that might be, a good time, if ever she could. If she were to die in Amsterdam, shot in one of these streets by a passing maniac, that would make for a real change, but even then the envelope might still exist, whether in the possession of Louis, or his proxy, or some other unimaginable. There is no need to be shot, and just look at these strangers, all of them harmless, as safe as the canals. She might drown, though, she might be drowned. The surface of the water is itself like an envelope. And then, across the canal, she sees him. He is in a coat she has never seen before, not that she is sure that ever knew all of his coats. Everything about him, the coat and the way he is squinting at the map in his hands and the very slight pursing of his mouth, suggests someone who has not been swallowed up by the earth. On the contrary, as he begins to walk, she can measure how light his step is, how gravity has no greater hold on him than on anyone else, how he has no limp from the collision with the distracted driver, his walk has the music that the spheres do not, and she follows him. She follows him down this street and around that corner without asking herself any specific questions about where he might be going, or even what he is doing in the Netherlands, and certainly not why she is following him. Instead she contemplates the geometry of their path, looking for a pattern rather than a destination in their turns here and there. It is not impossible that, seen from above, Louis’s trajectory fairly faithfully approximates the compositional movement in The Night Watch, which she has only an hour ago stood in front of and been made worried by, what with its strange combination of purpose and uncertainty, where do they all think they’re going, no wonder somebody once chucked some acid at it. Just to make it stop, halt them in their tracks. At last he enters a café and she stands at a corner, watching the doorway through which he has gone, thinking of where they might be in The Night Watch. It is past dinnertime and her sister might be searching for her, somewhere else within the geometries of The Night Watch, and as the thought nearly makes her smile she notices the man in the raincoat across the street. He is leaning against a railing by the canal and chewing something slowly, slowly, and he is looking at her, also slowly, slowly, and then looking back to where she has been looking, at the café entrance. Then back to her again, slightly slower chewing, and with almost a pause in his slow chewing he cranes his neck to look behind him where another figure in a window two floors up is standing, too far away for any features to be made out but also clearly watching the café entrance. All of us in The Night Watch, she thinks. There is no need to be dramatic about it, simple as that, this is Amsterdam after all. She has never wept for or because of Louis, neither when he said to her at the end of the week nor when he did not call, not that week nor at the end of any week, and she does not weep now. The fact that she does not weep decides her next move: she crosses the street in firm paces, aware as she goes, aware without actually looking, that there are others besides those two in this scene, that some of them have just been arriving, having followed whomever it was that arrived before they did. The man in the raincoat chews slowly, slowly as she goes primly into the café. The moon above her is not the moon.
In a painting, she explains, we see a moment presented to us, but we experience our own burning anticipation of the next moment, the moment after this one, as well as our equally burning curiosity about the moment before this one. In the greatest paintings, which we might call the cruellest paintings if that actually made any sense, we are torn in two directions. And yet, she continues after a pause, the tension can hold us in equilibrium if we can prevent one claim from pulling us harder in its direction than the other. A student has a hand in the air, not a question, exactly: Establishing a harmony, then, like the music of the spheres? If you like, she answers, but she can hear the hesitation in her voice, and then she shakes her head. No, actually, that’s probably not the best way to think about it, because that makes it seem natural and effortless, ordained even. And what we’re talking about is an act of will, but an act of will that seems to occur not without effort but without premeditation, without any kind of meditation at all. Imagine yourself walking through a door. You step across the threshold: you have some idea of where you are when you are on one side of the door, and perhaps an idea of what you’ll find on the other side, when you’ve stepped through the door, but these are not the same kinds of idea. But they are when you are in transit, just passing over the threshold, and for that instant neither on one side nor on the other. Technically at that point in time you have no definite knowledge of where you have just come from and none of where you are going. When you look at this painting, she says and gestures to the slide projection of The Night Watch, you are moving through that doorway. But professor, comes a question from the back, can a painting not at least suggest the past or the present? Shrugging lightly, she answers that the question is better posed to paintings themselves. For her part she is not sure. When she abruptly decided to go to graduate school years ago, she recounts, she thought that if she waited long enough pictures like this one would eventually tell her, or show her, or, yes, even suggest to her, she who looked and listened and waited, what came before, what comes after, where we have been, where we are going. And now, you see, she is a professor of art history, her sister is not. She is older than she was, she has not been murdered, not run down by a distracted driver, not even been swallowed up by the earth. I am here, she says, I am here and I am still waiting to find out those things, and when I look at this painting it says as much to me, and I think it will one day tell me these things, but I don’t know for sure that it has ever suggested that it shall. Another student raises a hand, shrilly asks: What was in the envelope? But that student is not a real student. None of them is, and this is not a classroom, and she has never been to Amsterdam, and never stood in front of The Night Watch. She is going to give him just one more week to call.