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The Artist

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FRIDAY FICTION [2]

A short story from Little Tales of Misogyny

by Patricia Highsmith

AT THE TIME Jane got married, one would have thought there was nothing unusual about her. She was plump1, pretty and practical: she could give artificial respiration at the drop of a hat2 or pull someone out of a faint or a nosebleed. She was a dentist’s assistant, and as cool as they come3 in the face of crisis or pain. But she had enthusiasm for the arts. What arts? All of them. She began, in the first year of her married life, with painting. This occupied all her Saturdays, or enough of Saturdays to prevent adequate shopping for the weekend, but her husband Bob did the shopping. He also paid for the framing of muddy, run-together4 oil portraits of their friends, and the sittings5 of the friends took up time on the weekends too. Jane at last faced the fact she could not stop her colors from running together, and decided to abandon painting for the dance.

THE DANCE, in a black leotard, did not much improve her robust figure, only her appetite. Special shoes followed. She was studying ballet. She had discovered an institution called The School of Arts. In this five-storey edifice6 they taught the piano, violin and other instruments, music composition, novel-writing, poetry, sculpture, the dance and painting.

YOU SEE, Bob, life can and should be made more beautiful,’ Jane said with her big smile. ‘And everyone wants to contribute, if he or she can, just a little bit to the beauty and poetry of the world.’

MEANWHILE, Bob emptied the garbage and made sure they were not out of potatoes. Jane’s ballet did not progress beyond a certain point, and she dropped it and took up singing. ‘I really think life is beautiful enough as it is,’ Bob said. ‘Anyway I’m pretty happy.’ That was during Jane’s singing period, which had caused them to crowd the already small living-room with an upright7 piano.

FOR SOME REASON, Jane stopped her singing lessons and began to study sculpture and wood-carving8. This made the living-room a mess of dropped bits of clay9 and wood chips which the vacuum could not always pick up. Jane was too tired for anything after her day’s work in the dentist’s office, and standing on her feet over wood or clay until midnight.

BOB came to hate The School of Arts. He had seen it a few times, when he had gone to fetch10 Jane at 11 p.m. or so. (The neighborhood was dangerous to walk in.) It seemed to Bob that the students were all a lot of misguided11 hopefuls, and the teachers a lot of mediocrities. It seemed a madhouse of misplaced effort. And how many homes, children and husbands were being troubled now, because the women of the households —the students were mainly women— were not at home performing a few essential tasks? It seemed to Bob that there was no inspiration in The School of Arts, only a desire to imitate people who had been inspired, like Chopin, Beethoven and Bach, whose works he could hear being mangled12 as he sat on a bench in the lobby, awaiting his wife. People called artists mad, but these students seemed incapable of the same kind of madness. The students did appear insane, in a certain sense of the word, but not in the right way, somehow. Considering the time The School of Arts deprived him of his wife, Bob was ready to blow the whole building to bits.

HE had not long to wait, but he did not blow the building up himself. Someone —it was later proven to have been an instructor— put a bomb under The School of Arts, set to go off at 4 p.m. It was New Year’s Eve, and despite the fact it was a semi-holiday, the students of all the arts were practicing diligently. The police and some newspapers had been forewarned of the bomb. The trouble was, nobody found it, and also most people did not believe that any bomb would go off. Because of the seediness13 of the neighborhood, the school had been subjected to scares and threats before. But the bomb went off, evidently from the depths of the basement, and a pretty good-sized one it was.

Bob happened to be there, because he was to have fetched Jane at 5 p.m. He had heard about the bomb rumor, but did not know whether to believe it or not. With some caution, however, or a premonition, he was waiting across the street instead of in the lobby. One piano went through the roof, a bit separated from the student who was still seated on the stool14, fingering nothing. A dancer at last made a few complete revolutions without her feet touching the ground, because she was a quarter of a mile high, and her toes were even pointing skyward. An art student was flung through a wall, his brush poised, ready to make the master stroke as he floated horizontally towards a true oblivion15. One instructor, who had taken refuge as often as possible in the toilets of The School of Arts, was blown up in proximity to some of the plumbing.

THEN came Jane, flying through the air with a mallet16 in one hand, a chisel17 in the other, and her expression was rapt. Was she stunned, still concentrating on her work, or even dead? Bob could not tell about Jane. The flying particles subsided with a gentle, diminishing clatter18, and a rise of grey dust. There were a few seconds of silence, during which Bob stood still. Then he turned and walked homeward. Other Schools of Art, he knew, would arise. Oddly, this thought crossed his mind before he realized that his wife was gone forever.

The Artist Patricia Highsmith 

Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995) was an American novelist, known for her psychological thrillers, which led to more than two dozen film adaptations. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times, notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. Highsmith wrote 22 novels, including her series of five novels with Tom Ripley as protagonist, and many short stories. Michael Dirda observed, “Europeans honored her as a psychological novelist, part of an existentialist tradition represented by her own favorite writers, in particular Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Gide, and Camus.” Graham Greene described her as “the poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time…is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably.” Published under pseudonym, Highsmith wrote the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, The Price of Salt, republished 38 years later as Carol under her own name.

 

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