Tuesday, April 12, 2011


My brother Robert often reminds us that everything is working out. Over the weekend when our mother’s visit from San Francisco went off so harmoniously, everything was working out. When Elliot did a spectacular job in his weekend performance at the high school play; when the kitchen renovation was finally completed, when my latest story was published, everything was working out. And we are nourished by these affirmations.

Until everything isn’t working out. Until the message on my cell phone yesterday afternoon: “Hi Mandy. It’s Robert. Not to alarm you, but I’m broken down on the New Jersey Turnpike and I’m waiting for a tow truck. Just wanted to give you a heads up. Not sure how long my phone is going to hold up because I was on the phone for quite some time with the Triple A – just wanted to let you know what was going on. All right, goodbye.”

What? How unfair of life! And how does this fit our narrative?

Next message: “Hi Mandy. It’s Robert. Well, I have to stay overnight so I’m here in Brunswick, New Jersey at a Ramada Inn and um, hopefully will get my car fixed tomorrow – I’m looking for my phone charger – and I-think-I’ve-left-it-in –the-car? Oh DAMN it!... Anyway… I’m fine and I’ll just have to work it out – I’ll probably shut my phone off so that I’ll save battery. All right I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

I Skype with him later, and am reassured to see him propped up on pillows in the Ramada Inn. He is wearing glasses and a black t shirt. He’s coping. He will be fine. He’s also Skyping with his girlfriend Sherry so he’ll talk to me later. He has his laptop so all is well, and anyway, he doesn’t have to be in Massachusetts for his gig until tomorrow.

How like a car, I think to myself. Isn’t it just in their nature to break down? I remember when we lived in Rome, a few years ago, and the family had gone out of town. I’d woken up on my first morning of blissful solitude and driven to a favorite nature reserve on the top of Monte Mario. I parked the car, a black PT Cruiser, and set off with the dogs, Basil the dachshund and Hannah the labrador, down a path lined with fir, cypress and sequoia trees. The air was light and fragrant. I took in the beautiful panorama - a view of the Apennines, St Peter’s dome, a hot air balloon rising over the Borghese Gardens. The perfect life! Friends were arriving from Brussels the following afternoon. I had planned to cook something special, listen to music, do some reading and writing.

I completed the circuit with my dogs, loaded them into the car, and turned the key in the ignition. Then I tried the ignition again. And again.

Not a click.

An elderly gentleman wandered up the path. Could he help, perhaps? After attaching jumper cables to my battery and running his car engine for several minutes, he smiled apologetically. It couldn’t be the battery, he said. Evidently I had a more serious problem. Something electrical, perhaps. Good luck with it. I watched his figure amble up the sun-dappled lane, then I unloaded Basil and Hannah and walked five minutes to a gas station.

I explained my problem to an attendant in blue coveralls. He shook his head. Sorry. He couldn’t help. But there was a Q8 station further up the road. Was it far, I asked. No, no. Just a few kilometers.

Dogs in tow, I started up the road. Cars flew around hairpin turns at top speed. Drivers blared horns and gestured rudely. What was I thinking, walking dogs in such a place? What, was I crazy?

Fifteen death-defying minutes later, we arrived at the Q8 station where I explained my situation to a second mechanic. Again, he shook his head. Sorry. He couldn’t get around to it until later that afternoon. He handed me a card and told me to phone back at 4:00.

The walk home took me an hour. Harmony became a mirage. So I wasn’t in heaven after all. Everything was NOT working out. I’d been plunged into hellish inefficiency, dependent on car batteries and mechanics, where none could be found. Cars and motorbikes flew past. The dogs plodded onward. There wasn’t a scrap of shade. We arrived at the apartment, frazzled and exhausted at 11:00.

“Senora! Cosa fai?” Javid the portiere cried when he saw me. Ah, not to worry. There was an embassy technician, he believed. In fact, he himself would help get in touch with a mechanic, if necessary!

Many useless phone calls later, I arranged for a tow truck, which never arrived at Monte Mario. I took a bus back up the hill and waited for an hour. I walked around an olive grove, talking on my cell phone, trying to form a back up plan – which involved a car rental, suggested by my friend Elizabeth, who lived in Trastevere. But half way through the arrangements, my cell phone battery also died. So I waited at a bus stop for twenty minutes and made a second trip home.

My luck turned several phone calls later, at 3:00, when a gleaming white tow truck appeared in front of the apartment complex, riding high on the road. I almost kissed the driver! He was the most spectacular thing I’d seen all day. I sat in his air-conditioned cab as he drove up Monte Mario and back down the lane to where my dead car was parked so peacefully.

He hooked the front of the car to a cable, pulled it forward, and with his hydraulic crank, winched it to the back of his machine. He then conveyed us down to the Agip gas station on Corso di Francia, where I chatted with more mechanics. No problem, they assured me affably – you need a new battery. It’s very common. How old is the car? Ah, well that’s to be expected.

There were broad smiles all round, as I headed further up the road to the battery replacement people. Certainly, senora. They would have the car ready in an hour.

And that’s how I found myself grateful to be sitting in a McDonalds next to the garage. An old mechanic came in from next door and ordered a gelato. He saw me and smiled, giving me a signal “cosi cosi” with a balancing gesture of his hand. Soon they’d be finished with the car, he said.

So I was not an island. Also, I’d taken batteries for granted. But everything was working out. Four years in Italy taught me not to place much faith in efficiency, so this couldn’t be a lesson to keep my cell phone charged, or to foster a regard for mechanics. Surely it had to be something more profound. Something to do with my plunge from bliss into helplessness, and the struggle back to normality. Maybe it was about being stranded. Or about gratitude and patience and the irrelevance of hope.

I finished my lunch. The old mechanic finished his gelato. We returned to the garage and watched as two guys spray cleaned my car filter, washed their hands in a grease cutting cream and clamped the last few hoses into place.

By 4:00 the car was running once again. My whole day had been spent on the car, just to get back to zero. Instead of a day in peaceful solitude I’d taken a mental journey outside the system – outside the airtight world that had worked so smoothly until suddenly it didn’t, and I found myself locked out of harmony, without the material things I depended on.

Robert had been on a similar journey when he sent me a text at noon today. “Car will be fixed in an hour!” it read. Then, at 1:00: “Car running tip top all set!”

The exclamation points say it all. So Robert’s car died on the New Jersey Turnpike. And he’s been trying to make ends meet, and he’s had another set back. But he is a man who takes things in stride. And he’s grateful to be on his way. Hey, it’s almost better! I for one, am happier than when he started back to Boston, because once again he’s proven to us all that everything is working out.

Friday, April 1, 2011


The model is late. Joe, who often poses for us, recommended her to Chuck. “You’ll love her,” he said. “She’s the most beautiful girl in the world.”

We have hauled out cubes of soft new clay from the supply cabinet, sliced them with wire, set up our stands and boards, taken out our tools and pounded out our bases, by the time Chuck telephones the model to find out where she is. Turns out she’s lost. The GPS misled her, and it will be another half hour or more before she gets to the studio.

Susan with her big glasses and butcher striped apron jokes with Fran, who she has nicknamed 'the clay whisperer'. “Maybe the most beautiful girl in the world is a figment of imagination,” she says.

Chuck walks lopsided in his ancient trousers, hoisted and cinched with a belt so they won’t fall down. Since we need a model, he produces one of his own pieces for us to copy. He sets it on the platform - a sculpture of a female nude about half size, mounted on a wooden stand. It has an arched back and twisted torso, one arm bent with a hand across her face. The face, turned sideways is hidden from view. One knee is raised; the other lies flat. The twist in the torso suggests emotional pain. “Work on this until she gets here,” he says.

He shambles round the room, then stops. Perches on a stool for a moment. “Can you get it right,” he teases, looking at somebody’s work. “Try to get the movement here, will you? Try to get this curve, and the fullness here.” Then, “you want to slenderize this bit, love. Don’t hesitate to look at the model,” he says. Usually during the third week, he tells us that “now it’s time to do the eyelashes.”

“Did you do this?” he asks. “There’s hope for you yet. Maybe you should stick around.” Or, “Your proportions are wrong, kiddo. Look here. The leg is too short." Or, “The face slants back from the middle of the eye; it cuts back.” Sometimes he says, “you might want to exaggerate this. Try to capture the gesture. Jest-char.”

Thirty years ago, Chuck’s daughter was killed in an accident. He had been uneasy about her hiking around Europe. But then it was the darnedest thing. Within a couple of months of her return, she was surveying in a field out in Arizona, and a truck came out of nowhere, killing her instantly.

“How do you recover from something like that,” I asked when he told me this story.

“Oh,” he said. “I was out of it for years. And that’s what saved me.”

Now he’s telling Trish the joke about two cannibals. She wasn’t here the first time he told it. “They’re eating a clown,” he begins. “And then one turns to the other and says, does this taste funny to you?”

Trish roars. She has long silver hair and a beautiful face. She often sculpts horse heads. She always arrives late and gives Chuck a kiss and teases him a bit and he sometimes sings her songs, and then she goes around the room and greets everybody individually.

Chuck has known Trish for twenty-five years. Ditto Susan with the big glasses. They all started out with him. Cindy has a photograph of Chuck when he was an air force pilot in the 40s, and Trish asks if she can have a copy. He looks so handsome and strong in that picture, but it’s still the same old Chuck. Even I can see this, although I’ve only known him three years.

There’s another Charles in the class as well, who sits on a chair resting for a lot of the time. “He’s almost as old as me,” Chuck jokes. The second Charles has blue eyes, a cherubic mouth and a crumpled chin and he always captures the gesture with little more than thumbprints in the clay. He likes his work unfinished, and doesn’t want to lose it. So a lot of the time he sits in a chair, with blue rubber gloves on his hands, gazing into space. I wonder what he’s thinking at such times. He likes to leave his piece alone. “What have you been doing lately Charles?” asks Chuck.

Charles answers, like Eeyore. “Oh, I’ve been looking out of the window and worrying a lot.”

The room falls quiet as we work with Chuck’s sculpture as our model. The smell of damp clay fills the bare room, and sun streams down from the skylight. Behind us, the drying shelves are piled with work – and above the pegs where we hang our coats, a row of kneeling student sculptures, differing only in execution: hands behind heads, as if to loosen the hair, terracotta bathers by a dried up stream.

Past and future fall away as I sink my fingers into clay, to reproduce the arch of the back and the line of the leg. I take up a knife to shape it. I press and slice and kneed the clay, so that it contours beneath the knee, and then slants into a bending movement.

“Shall we turn the model,” somebody suggests. And since Chuck’s sculpture is not a real person, Trish wise-cracks about notifying the model when you’re going to turn her. “Excuse me, I’m turning you now.”

From the new angle, I see a hidden curve under the back and also the well of an armpit with one breast resting in a hollow beneath it, sinking down, and the line from the collarbone to chest. The arch of the ribs surprises me with its prominence and the depression of the diaphragm rises to belly, and contours down before traveling up to the hip bone.

The arm across the face, palm upturned, hides an expression, which would be too painful to see full on. My eyes smart. Chuck limps round, and stops to make observations, standing contraposto at my side. “You might want to accentuate this curve, but you’re the artist.” When he says 'you’re the artist' you feel he doesn’t like your work. But when he asks if you can do it right, you feel you might be onto something.

The most beautiful girl in the world has finally arrived. She will pose for an hour and a half. She seems a little ditsy. Susan extends a hand. “Hi. I’m Susan,” seething through her smile, because of the wasted time.

Someone pulls the heavy canvas curtain across its runners. The most beautiful girl in the world takes off her clothes. She has short dark hair and long proportions. But she can’t hold the pose of Chuck’s sculpture – because it’s too painful, she says.

Instead she crosses her legs the other way, left leg up instead of right. The twist of the torso is less pronounced like this, and the buttocks rest on a soft surface of slanting cushions, so that she’s reclining at a less exaggerated angle. She places one arm across her face, shielding her eyes, like a sunbather.

This girl is herself, but nothing more than that. She lies across the model’s stand. Nothing about her body suggests emotion, passion or privacy. I’m trying to see what I saw before, but either I see too much or not enough.

By the time the class ends I’ve had to undo what I started. I wet down my piece with sprays of a water bottle, cover it with a plastic bag and shove it onto the shelf. I wash my hands, soap between the fingers, and dry them with musty smelling paper towels.

“Goodbye kid,” Chuck says as I kiss him on the cheek. “See you next time.” He’s perched on a stool as I leave the studio. Trish and Fran are still there chatting. They have all been friends for a very long time.

Here is one of my recent pieces.