They gazed at the blank wall where Bridgton’s exhibit had been.
“Can you imagine,” Johnny said, “what the art looked like? I mean, how the hell did he do it?”
Noelle leaned into him. “Did he really paint with her blood?” she asked quietly. “I heard he used her blood.”
He gasped involuntarily, and then felt like a fool. “Probably,” he said, straightening up. “He used her…pieces in the canvas. In his paintings. Like, a tooth. A thumb. And there were a couple of sculptures. I don’t know, I didn’t see it.”
Noelle walked to a painting of a brown horse head in close-up, a sort of Jackson Pollock-looking animal face. Johnny didn’t know much about art. Valerie did. If she were here, she’d tell him what kind of painting the horse was. Maybe she’d tell him how it was possible to take human flesh and sinew and organs and make it into something people came to view and admire. Without ever knowing what they saw. That was the beauty of it. The clincher. Nobody knew. It was so damn shrewd, it almost made him sick.
But he would never ask Vali to help him on a story. He couldn’t imagine it. She would open her small hands and explain it all from her viewpoint, impassioned and yet almost meditative, talking in circles the way she did, but in earnest and with such emotion it would almost make him cry. Her small, light, genuine phrasings, her limited attention span and rambling narratives would somehow prevent him from the clarity he needed. In particular, he needed some sort of deliverance, so he could sleep. Vali, and Bridgton, kept him painfully vigilant.
Noelle pressed close to the horse painting. “That’s interesting,” she said. “This horse head is made up of tiny little faces. Thousands of them. You’d never see it unless you looked closely. Kind of pointillistic.”
He walked to the horse head portrait and peered into it. Hundreds of little faces looked back at him, sneering, laughing, grimacing, scowling. So many tiny faces – and the closer he looked, the more the entire painting became distorted. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to even see the horse head again.
The story was here in the gallery, somewhere. He could feel it. He would find it, somehow, and then go back and finish it, go home, and forget about everything – the horse head, Noelle, the smell of blood-red smeared on canvas.
“Do you think he wanted to kill her?” she asked.
“Silly. Bridgton. Who else?”
“Oh. No. I mean, yes, I think he meant to kill her. But I don’t think he wanted to.”
“I don’t know.” Noelle looked at the horse head again. “I feel like he did.”
“Or he wanted to, and didn’t want to. I don’t think something like that is black and white. I don’t think it’s just one thing.” Except cutting someone up is pretty unequivocal, he wanted to say. But didn’t.
“He must have been at such war with himself,” he went on. “His indecision…I can’t imagine how he must have felt. To want to end her, to preserve her.”
“Have you ever thought about it?”
“You know. Killing your wife. Killing Valerie.”
He sucked in his breath and put a hand on the wall. “Are you crazy?”
“Well, no. But, you can’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. All married people secretly think about killing each other.”
“And you know this because…”
“I read it somewhere. And literally every married person I’ve met has told me, in one way or another.”
“Every single married person.”
Johnny thought of Bridgton, as usual. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Oh, not everyone acts on it, obviously. But you are truly obsessed with Bridgton. So naturally, I thought…”
He grabbed her, his fingers gripping her upper arms. “I am not obsessed with him,” he said, shaking her. “I am not.”
She cried out in pain a little, and he suddenly needed to push her against the wall and make love to her right there. Only the gallery watchman was there since it was late, and he had taken the elevator down earlier. This section was dark. Johnny could have her, if he acted quickly.
He pressed his mouth on hers and she struggled against him. “Noelle,” he said. “Noelle.”
She shoved him and he took a couple of steps backwards, touching his mouth with the side of his hand as if she had hit him.
“You’ve thought about killing her,” she said. “Admit it.”
“Okay, fine. Yes. I have thought about her dying, in one way or another.”
“But, I wouldn’t do it. I mean, how do people do it?” It was a rhetorical question.
“There are ways.”
“So you’re suggesting I kill her?”
Noelle licked her lips. “I’m not suggesting anything,” she said. “I’m only wondering. Because of the story. Because of Bridgton.”
“Bridgton.” The word sounded hollow but resonant. As if it meant far more, or less, than the name of a killer behind bars with a transcendental imagination. He had to admit to himself, sometimes he wished Valerie would just vanish. Take her strange and frustrating thoughts and go away. He loved her, he hated her. She was a vortex of contradiction, and she gathered him up and brought him along on her maddening tempests. But he didn’t want her dead. He didn’t want her gone in that way. He just wanted her to vanish, like in a magic spell. Just evaporate, bubbles floating in space, liquid funneling down to nothing.
“It’s not the same, though,” he said, realizing he sounded like a man in the grip of a strange infatuation. “I mean, he loved his wife. That’s what they say. His lawyer, his friends, family members. But the thing is, she was dying, Bridgton’s wife. That’s what people don’t know. Did you know that? She was dying of cancer. Stage four. She’s in pain. And then he goes and kills her. And uses her dead body for his art. What kind of a guy does that? Is he insane? Or does it make sense? Is it pure evil, or the highest form of love? I can’t tell.”
“Bridgton loved his wife, and yet he still killed her. Maybe it would be better. Maybe you would be doing yourself – both of you – a favor.”
“By killing her? I’d do her a favor?”
Noelle laughed a little. “I know it sounds strange. But she’s a bit of a nutcase, Johnny. I mean, look at her. She is totally preoccupied with her phone, she thinks she has every kind of cancer there is, she’s completely OCD. I mean, come on. What kind of life is that?”
“I don’t know.”
Noelle walked to him and ran her hands down the front of his coat. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to fight. Let’s forget it. I just want you to be happy. Let’s go back and make love in the shower.”
“I don’t want to make love in the shower,” he said. “I want to make love in the dirt. In the back alley, in that patch of dirt back there. That’s our place. That’s where we belong.”
He left with her, agitated and inflamed.
“Masterpieces” is included in the Murder Ink 3 anthology, available for purchase at Plaidswede Publishing, http://www.nhbooksellers.com/product-page/murder-ink-3-pre-pub-ordering