The Widower Muse Michael Upchurch
Tone is everything. Content is nothing.
Sage Bentham—“the poet of impersonality,” as one critic called him, or “the fastidious seer of the motor-vehicle interior,” according to another—stumbled onto his style early on, in his twenties, and scarcely veered from it in the dozen years that followed, painting after painting. The smooth acrylic surfaces, the sturdy utilitarian shapes, the absence of any human presence—these were the hallmarks of a Bentham canvas.
And the focus of his work?
As the critic said: Vehicle interiors.
Car interiors, bus interiors, train interiors. Ferry interiors, airplane interiors or any enclosed space that, by electro-mechanical or combustion-engine means, transported people from one location to another… the distinguishing trait of these images being that the people these vehicles were designed to carry were nowhere to be seen.
He painted the vacant insides of truckers’ cabs, lit by the metronome of highway halogen lamps. He painted unpopulated ship interiors and showed in them a special fondness for the shallow white curves and repeated wooden doorways of maritime corridors. He once, as a joke, did a completely empty San Francisco cable car plunging down the steepest block of Powell Street without even a driver at the stick—his most fanciful flight of imagination, perhaps, since even in January you hardly ever see a cable car less than half-full with tourists.
Each painting involved obtaining a certain access, for Sage always shot photographs (his “field research”) before getting his brushes out. Obtaining access wasn’t difficult early on when it was just a question of gaining entry to friends’ cars. (Sage had never learned to drive.) The beat-up Volkswagen of his first boyfriend Galen, during his last year of high school in Yakima, may have been what got his “Vehicles of Transport” series started. But after he moved to Seattle and his ambitions grew, access became more complicated. And promiscuity, to which he was inclined anyway, became more useful.
He would haunt every gay bar on Capitol Hill and a host of other watering holes to get what he was after. If he needed a trucker, he would find a trucker (“Vehicle of Transport No. 124” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 137”). If he needed a yachtsman from Shilshole, he would find a yachtsman from Shilshole (“Vehicle of Transport No. 202” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 209”).
Other conquests included a Gray Line double-decker bus tour guide (“Vehicle of Transport No. 78” through “Vehicle of Transport No. 87”) and a pre-9/11 airline baggage-checker (one of few instances where Sage strayed from empty passenger vehicles, the focus here being an empty luggage-conveyor belt). A bisexual Boeing engineer had granted him access to the spanking new interior of the 777 when it was first coming off the assembly line, but hadn’t managed to smuggle him aboard the vessel’s first test flight. An Alaskan ferry steward he knew had arranged to sneak him down into the engine room, but was never able to get him up into the bridge. The never-visited bridge and the 777 in flight were both lasting regrets for Sage—but he held firm against painting any vehicle interior he hadn’t studied himself. Imagination, he liked to say, can only take you so far; what really counts is hard work and careful observation.
Throughout his twenties Sage remained the sprinter, the charmer, the trickster, the dancer, the sprite, dropping in on everyone’s parties and going through boyfriend after boyfriend. The moment he hit thirty—it was as if a clock had struck somewhere—he settled down.
He still went dancing and he still put on his usual sartorial display—scarlet bow-tie, chartreuse sportsjacket, candy-colored saddle shoes. But now he had an anchor in the corner: Wally. His sex-for-access antics simmered down. He had enough of a reputation by now to gain legitimate entry to most of the venues he was after without making himself part of the bargain. Also—it was almost as though he hadn’t realized this was possible before—he started painting a number of “vehicles” that any member of the public could enter for the price of a ticket—the elevators up and down the Space Needle, the trolley car along the waterfront, any number of buses easing their way through our newly-built bus tunnel (a “vehicle of transport” within a “corridor of transport” producing an interior-within-an-interior perspective).
The resulting paintings, it has to be said, were brilliant: endlessly inventive within their constraint, full of tension and play and illusory surfaces. Some might call this photorealism, Richard Estes-style, but it was photorealism with some kind of warp or distortion running through it. And those qualities became especially pronounced with the advent of Wally—Wally who, in turn, came as a surprise to all of us. It made sense for Sage to be hooked up with someone. But why, we asked ourselves, this guy?
Of course we never thought to reverse the question—to ask what Wally saw in Sage, since we felt that was obvious. Each of us had slept with him at some stage of the game… or, if not “slept,” then “cuddled”—for there was nothing Sage liked better than “a good cuddle.” By the time Dan walked out on him, there were dozens of men around town who would have scooped him up (he was just the right size for scooping), and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d landed an older, wealthier man who wanted to be his patron. He still had the diminutive, elfin looks to serve as someone’s “trophy prodigy.” At the same time he had crushes of his own—he was obsessed from a distance for years, for instance, with an usher at Benaroya Hall whose dark shaggy eyebrows, leonine eyes, gray flowing beard and upturned mustache promoted ecstasies in him.
“My Scottish sea dog,” Sage called him. Or alternately: “My Scottish sea-god.”
The man did look a bit like Neptune, but as far as I know the two never got anything going with each other.
Sage had only a passing interest in rock stars or movie actors. Instead he preferred to find his glamour more locally and in the flesh, as he had with his Symphony usher.
“Such a beautiful Asian teller,” he would say, “at Wells Fargo—Westlake branch. You should see him. Nice smile. So graceful, so slender. But slender-strong, you know?”
Or: “I keep winding up at Safeway at night. Such a cute cashier there. His name is Sven—”
Or simply: “I wonder who invented waiters…”
Making it sound as though they, in particular, were a special miracle that had, with intentional effort, deigned to visit his world.
Certainly there was no shortage of dashing, handsome waiters in Seattle—which just made Wally all the more inexplicable.
I argued with Sage about Wally.
“Look,” I said, “you’ve got a name now. You could walk up to almost anyone and say ‘Want to be my boyfriend?’ and they’d probably say yes. Or you could tell them you want to draw them. Use that as your opening. See where it goes.”
“But I don’t do people.”
This was true now, but it hadn’t always been true.
“What about at Cornish?”
“That was just at school.”
“But you could always go back to it. How about your Symphony usher?”
Sage pursed his lips in distaste: “I only want to admire. I don’t want to exploit.”
Here was a fastidious side of him that always took me by surprise. He was willing to use himself to any reckless degree necessary if it was for a painting he wanted to do—but he couldn’t ask the same of other people.
“I’m a soldier of art,” he’d explain sardonically. “But they’re just civilians. They don’t deserve that kind of treatment.”
“But what if you did put some figures in the paintings? Having a model would be legitimate, then.”
I knew he could do figures: beautiful sensual Sargent-like life studies. He’d done a charcoal sketch of me in class a dozen years ago—a nude he’d tossed away that I’d rescued from the garbage and treasured ever since, partly out of vanity (I knew I’d never look that good again) and partly because it was so adroitly done. Given his talents, it seemed to me he was cutting off an integral part of himself, ignoring whole avenues of possibility. But that wasn’t how he saw it.
“The figures are there,” he insisted of his paintings. “Especially in these new ones. Everything I know about the human body is at the heart of them. You just aren’t looking hard enough.”
I shrugged as though willing to concede, in theory, that this might be the case. But he could see I wasn’t buying into it. And he wasn’t happy about this.
“Surely you can sense there’s something going on in them, some kind of force inhabiting them, can’t you?”
This startled me. Why so desperate? The way he pleaded made me a little embarrassed for him. So I admitted that I could indeed “sense” something there—but that I wasn’t at all sure what that “something” might be.
This was the truth. The paintings, to my eye, were pregnant with “offscreen” presences that made you want to lean into them and look around, wriggle through the cramped spaces they depicted to see where all the people had gone. His airliner interiors were a particularly strong instance of this: beautiful exercises in frustrations of perspective that made you want to stand up so you could see down the cabin-rows of seats to find someone—anyone!—who might be on board with you.
But it was all a tease, I felt. No one was there. No one had ever been there.
“Wally is there,” he said. “Since September”—the month Sage had met him—“Wally’s been in every single picture.”
We were in his studio. On the wall was his latest series, his usual variations on a close-knit theme—the sleeping cars on the Coast Starlight, in this case. He and Wally had gone on a train trip to Santa Barbara.
I tried. I went from one painting to another, and then back again.
But I didn’t see Wally in any of them.
Wally… how to describe Wally?
A spreading heap of sloping flesh, ensconced in size-14 shoes to keep him standing upright.
Wally: a pale expanse of fatty face, beneath the crown of an already balding head (and he was only twenty-three!).
Wally: belly-sphere like a huge balloon, sleek and walrus-like, entirely in proportion with himself but out of scale with everything around him.
Wally was six-foot-four to Sage’s five-foot-two and he weighed at least 300 pounds. He moved as if through molasses. He had the air of being simultaneously tough and fragile—like a brittle, oversized china doll. Sage, with unusual firmness, had made it clear we were not to question Wally’s presence among us. He’d even said, in what we assumed was a deadpan joke, “Wally is my muse. Wally is my inspiration. So you’ll just have to put up with him.”
This, with Wally sitting solemn-faced beside him.
And so we did learn to put up with him. But it wasn’t easy.
I remember one dinner party when the oddity of Wally’s presence among us really hit home.
The setting was Sage’s new house. He had, over the previous year, hit the local bigtime and was selling paintings, lots of paintings—including a whole series of empty elevator interiors—at hefty prices to some of the most prestigious collectors around town. With the proceeds he had bought a small bungalow with huge windows, perched on a terraced lot above the Burke-Gilman Trail, near Matthews Beach. From his deck you could see across Lake Washington to Kirkland and Juanita, with the Cascades—a turquoise-white wave foaming into stone—rising up behind them. It was August, it was dry, and had been dry for weeks. Bicyclists and joggers were sweating their way up and down the trail below us, while from just over the crest of the mountains, a wind-driven column-smear of smoke rose up into the atmosphere, sickly yellow at its base: a forest fire that had been burning out of control for days now near Leavenworth, forcing road closures, evacuations, preventative burns. It was strange to be sitting out on a warm evening, drinking wine, enjoying good food and catty conversation, while across the lake, somewhere in the picture-perfect mountains, an inferno was making this parched, warm, windy weather someone else’s emergency. It was also strange to think there wasn’t a single chance that this view—as magnificent as it was—would ever be painted by Sage. It simply didn’t interest him as a subject.
But there were still odder phenomena to observe closer to hand.
Wally, for instance, who announced a propos of nothing, “Schiele had a mistress named Wally,” then shut right up.
Sage, already a little drunk, leaned forward, intoned “Hear! Hear!” and waved his wineless wineglass in front of him. Wally, noticing it was empty and seeing all the bottles on the table were empty too, rose from his chair with a certain portly majesty and soft-shoed it into the kitchen to retrieve more vino.
In his absence the conversation swung around to the erotic hijinks of the current president—the blowjobs in the Oval Office, the besmirching of the famous blue dress, the drawn-out obfuscation as to what the
meaning of “is” is.
“Her behavior I get entirely!” Sage exclaimed. “I’d do him myself—”
“That’s one way to get into Air Force One,” someone quipped.
Sage, ignoring this, repeated: “I’d do him myself, if he was that way inclined. I mean, look at him—he’s a great big honey-bear of a man!”
At this we all looked in the direction of the kitchen, united in a single thought: Wally might be big, but none of us could picture him as a honey-bear. He was too pale and hairless and blimplike for that.
“But his behavior I don’t get at all,” Sage continued. “What does he see in her? She’s just a chubby little Jewish girl who affects to wear a beret. And isn’t she from Ohio or somewhere?”
Sage, an instinctively urban creature who’d been raised in irrigated farm country high on the sagebrush flats of the Columbia Plateau, had the native-born provincial’s disdain for all other city-aspiring native-born provincials.
“California, actually,” someone corrected him. “Beverly Hills.”
“Whatever,” Sage said. “I mean, even in my heyday I was more selective than that.”
He talked of his “heyday” as if it had been decades ago instead of the mere year or so since he’d met Wally. And how could he talk about being “selective” when Wally was who he’d ended up with?—Wally who, arriving back on the deck from the kitchen, now had two large bottles of Cabernet clenched in his pudgy fists.
Brent, who like me had once had a thing with Sage back when we were all at Cornish, said: “I don’t really care what he did, per se. But it’s bad news. We’re going to have to live with it for years.”
“You think?” Sage inquired.
“Oh, come on—how much more can CNN say about a blowjob? And what about the polls?”
“The polls won’t matter come election time,” Brent said. “It’s a blot on his record. On the whole party’s record.”
“I heard,” Sage said airily, “it was more like a series of blots. You know: one big one, and then a series of little trailing after-spurts.”
“Well I wouldn’t want to be in Hillary’s shoes,” Brent said irritably.
“Wouldn’t you?” Sage asked. “She comes out smelling like a saint. Stand By Your Man and all that?”
“How many shoes do you think she has?” a boozy voice called out. “As many as Imelda? Or maybe only half as many?”
This was Dan, Wally’s immediate predecessor with Sage.
“I’m sure it’s an impressive collection,” someone answered.
“And how about you, dear?” Dan said, turning to Wally. “Would you like to fellate the president?”
Dan had followed the same pattern we all had—thrilled at first to be Sage’s boyfriend, glorying in being the beau of a minor local-arts-scene celebrity, then coming gradually to realize that living with Sage could actually be quite boring since all he ever did was paint.
True, Sage was in his element at dinner parties—but that was virtually the only time he came to life. It was as though he reserved all his peacock energies for when he was sitting at the head of the table. When you were with him on his own, he scarcely spoke. And the sex wasn’t all that spectacular. Once you knew which buttons to push, the whole business was strictly routine—like his gaudy, fanciful wardrobe that consisted, one gradually came to realize, of only two or three strikingly similar outfits.
And a little like his paintings, too, which could look terrific all lined up under just the right light in a cavernous gallery in Pioneer Square. Seeing them that way lent strength to their repetitions—and repetition enhanced their strangeness, their power. But at home those same paintings could seem monotonous at times, especially given the way Sage worked on them. If he finished a canvas at 3:45 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, he would never just call it quits. Instead, he would start on another, before breaking off at his usual time of five o’clock. His joke—if it was a joke—was that he’d made his creative routine as much like a 9-to-5 office routine as possible: “I’m sure that’s how Gilbert and George do it.”
This was fine for the first few months. But then, after nine months, or maybe a year, the novelty wore off—as did that of the paintings themselves, when you found yourself living with them. There inevitably came a morning when you’d wake up, have some coffee, look in on Sage in his studio, stare at his latest work in progress and think to yourself: “Oh, great… another airplane interior.” Or ferry lobby. Or Toyota backseat.
And you’d pack up your bags soon after that.
Another pattern also held true: that the moment Sage replaced you with someone else—and there appeared to be no shortage of willing successors—you’d immediately regret your decision and yearn to be taken back by him. Hence the dinner parties, which were often nothing but volatile gatherings of Sage’s ex-lovers from the pre-Wally era, all trying to outdo one another, all contending for his attention.
What Sage—who wanted nothing more than a predictable lover to stick predictably by his side while he painted his predictable work—made of this process, I can’t say. If it were me, I would have grown paranoid at being abandoned so frequently and then having all my faithless beaus hang on in my social circle for years afterward.
This particular pattern seemed to be coming to an end, however, with the advent of Wally. Wally, it appeared, was for keeps.
“No,” Wally said, in poker-faced answer to Dan’s bullying question about the president. “I only ever fellate Sage.”
“So why did he do it?” someone else asked. “It just seems nuts. You’d think he’d be too smart to act so dumb.”
Sage chipped in: “Because he could. Because he saw a chance to grab a little something extra. And he took it. Without really thinking about it.”
He leaned forward, brimming wineglass in hand, and smiled hugely at us.
“Like most of you,” he said with emphasis, his smile growing even broader: “You know you have—seen the chance and taken it.”
He turned specifically to me: “I know damn well you have.”
I didn’t know which specific transgression of mine he was referring to, but I had to acknowledge, with a regretful smile, that he was right.
“We probably all have,” Sage said soberly. “Except perhaps for Wally.”
Dan, on a mission, cornered Wally again: “So then, what would you say to our beleaguered president if you were to meet him, once you’d made it clear you weren’t going to fellate him?”
Wally, taking this in stride, sat up a little straighter, pronouncing each word in a bland robotic voice. “I suppose I would tell him: Mr. President, you eat just like everyone else. You sleep just like everyone else. You shit just like everyone else. So you have no special reason to break the rules. Because you really aren’t all that different.”
This was more than Wally had ever said at a single session. We were each a little stunned by it—all except for Sage, who had a small amused look on his face, such a bright, twinkling delight in his eye that you could almost hear him thinking: That’s my boy!
Which was when it sank in for me, when I knew it for sure: Wally was permanent.
I had known by the end of my second year at Cornish that I didn’t have what Sage had in terms of talent—and I began to turn such gifts as I was stuck with toward computer graphics, so as to find work as a commercial artist. What I realized, after getting some of the requisite late-night partying and club-going out of the way, was just how much work it took to be merely mediocre. Sage might be a bit on the facile side, the way he turned out canvas after canvas, all of them a little too instantly recognizable as his. But he was fluent and he drove his fluency in paints like a demon.
I couldn’t begin to approach his output, either in quantity or quality. This made me jealous of him, of course, and then furious with myself for being jealous. I might mock him for his foibles, but never, beyond the odd sniping quibble, for his art. Even while I was still going out with him and found myself badmouthing him to friends over drinks (“The man can’t even operate a washing machine!”), I would end with: “But of course he’s some weird kind of genius—the closest I’ve ever come to it, anyway.”
The odd thing was: by esteeming Sage so highly, by placing him on this pedestal, I forsook him slightly. I neglected him in the present because I was so busy imagining the rueful, mocking, laudatory things I would say about him in the future, at age sixty, seventy, eighty. I looked forward celebrating his contradictions—how he had come out of Eastern Washington sagebrush country, but had never painted that landscape. He wouldn’t have dreamt of it! And yet he loved the smeary canyon-and-butte paintings, licked through with smoke and piercing flame, of James Lavadour.
“Lavadour is amazing,” he would say, with a flutter of his eyes and a tweaking of his bright bow tie. “Mr. James Lavadour,” he would intone, “is the fucking J.M.W. Turner of the Interior Northwest. No kidding.”
This, about a man whose work, in most respects, was the absolute polar opposite of his own.
Sage, by contrast, was deliberately shallow—but I didn’t think he would always be seen as shallow. I didn’t even think of him, after a while, as a Richard Estes rip-off.
I remember one time we went up to Vancouver to see an Andy Warhol retrospective there. I’d gone out of idle interest because I liked the movies: Trash, Flesh, Heat. But I’d never thought much about the paintings. Silk screens of Elvis, Marilyn, Elizabeth Taylor… what was there to think? But then there were the JFK assassination paintings: the smiles in the motorcade before the gunfire; Lee Harvey Oswald pulling back in a crazy dance move as the bullet got him in the gut; Jackie as widow—in veils, with eyes downcast. And these were followed by some of the more messed-up self-portraits, the eyes a little piggish, the hair (a wig at this point?) halo-ing out of control.
Sage, in his saddle-shoes and little suit, was weeping. Sage, circling through the gallery again and again, had met his master—or one of his masters.
I, in the meantime, had caught the alluring eye of a museum guard who, on the breast of his handsome blue uniform, was wearing a button saying: “Ask Me About Andy.”
I asked him all the way into the men’s room—corner stall.
And wasn’t much good to Sage for a few years after that.
A year went by, and then another year. And still we couldn’t believe it—that Wally was really what Sage wanted; that Wally was here to stay.
I took Sage’s quip about Wally being his muse as a joke at first—typical Sage! But then I wasn’t so sure. I think I was misled by my feeling that, given the kind of work that he did, Sage had no real need for a muse. Plus, if he needed one, why choose Wally?
My prejudice—my “lookism,” if you will—was showing here. But I couldn’t help myself. Wally was a lump. Wally was a conversation flattener. When we got a new president who seemed even more problematic than the last one, and everyone started griping about him, Wally preposterously chimed in, in a way that shut us all up: “It’s true. He may be a bad president. He may be a dumb president. But he’s the only president we’ve got right now.”
On a less political note, if the skies had been clouded week after week, and it seemed as though the sun would never return, Wally, as though deliberately to aggravate the situation, would take it upon himself to reassure us: “I agree. The weather is awfully gray just now. The weather has been gray for several weeks, I suppose. But the weather is often gray this time of year.”
Thank you, Wally.
After the country was attacked, and the initial shock and the rallying around the flag had subsided, and it looked as though our “problematic” new president might turn out to be our worst president ever—how sunny, how heavenly, the blowjobs and bubble economy of the Clinton years looked to us now!—we couldn’t help ourselves: we wanted to get Wally’s take on it. We asked what he would say to Bush if he had the opportunity to meet him. But Wally would not be drawn.
“I’m not sure I’d have anything to say to this president,” he answered primly. “Anymore than I had anything to say to the last.”
“Come on, Wally,” Dan said impatiently. “You’re telling me that if you had the chance to meet Bush, one on one, you would have absolutely nothing to ask the man? Nothing to tell him?”
Wally, seeing he had been cornered again, straightened up, inflated himself with his usual bland, resigned dignity, and answered: “Well I
suppose, if I was forced to, I would tell him the exact same thing I would have told his predecessor.”
We were enjoying this. We were getting a kick out of it. We were eager to serve as Wally’s chorus, in a way. And sure enough he came through for us.
“‘Mister President,’ I would say. ‘You eat just like everyone else. You sleep just like everyone else. You shit just like everyone else…’”
And so on.
We couldn’t help ourselves. As Wally continued with this litany of bodily functions, we all joined in him on the refrain—“Just like everyone else!”—which made him smile cautiously and hopefully. Was he perhaps being included? Had he finally been accepted by the circle of men around him?
No, definitely not.
In fact, after this episode it was agreed upon by all of us that Wally wasn’t human, that Wally was animatronic. And this did, on some level, make a certain sense. After all, Sage—in his work, in his wardrobe, in his personal routines—had done his best to approximate a robotic regularity of habit, an utter steadiness of regimen. And maybe only someone like Wally could fit so seamlessly, so frictionlessly, into a life so strictly regulated.
Besides, we had to remind ourselves, Sage had never ditched a lover. He’d never had the opportunity! We had all been too quick for him.
So maybe he didn’t know how to pull out of an affair?
Or maybe his allegiance to Wally was merely a symptom of his hankering after the predictable and the practical. He needed someone dependable in his life who could change a lightbulb, cook a meal, fix the lawnmower when it broke. I had no doubt that Wally knew how to do all these things and that Sage didn’t know how to do any of them. He had no clue how to run and maintain a household, anymore than he knew how to drive a car. So it had to be Wally who kept Sage’s pretty new bungalow (and its decks!) in such smart shape, who kept the whole business from leaking, rotting and falling down.
But was that enough? It might be devotion of a sort, but could it really be called love? Then again, why was I, who mostly just acted on impulse, concerned whether it was love or not? Maybe Wally was a compromise Sage was willing to make, for the sake of having some stability in his life. Maybe Wally, for Sage, was a This-Will-Do.
I had heard Sage use this phrase a number of times before—as a feeble plea for me not to leave him (“But don’t you see? This will do”); as an update on his latest boyfriend who perhaps wasn’t thrilling but was pleasant enough company (“Oh, you know how it is—this will do”); or as a description of a teaching arrangement he’d taken on or a piece of gallery business (“I agree, it’s not perfect—but it will do”).
Brent and Alessandro, before they had found their destiny in each other, had been in This-Will-Do relationships with Sage, first one of them, then the other. Dan and Sage had been such a flailing, operatic duo that This-Will-Do didn’t really apply to them—it was more like “What the hell are we doing together?” But at either extremity of connection, whether placid or turbulent, none of us had ever been decreed Sage’s “muse” that we knew of. And even though “This will do” had become an endlessly repeated joke within our circle, applied to all sorts of situations in all sorts of ways, I never once heard Sage use it in reference to Wally. In fact, I suspected, he wouldn’t have dreamt of it.
This bothered me. This bothered me so much and for so long, I’m afraid, that on the one rare opportunity I had to spirit Sage away from Wally so as to interrogate him, I went for it. It was a Saturday. Wally, who’d been with Sage now for about three years, was en route to North Dakota to visit his ailing 96-year-old grandmother. (Neither Wally’s apparent devotion to his ancient relative nor his family’s evident longevity boded well to me, hinting as they did at Wally’s continued presence in our lives—if we were all still around by then—until circa 2073.) I persuaded Sage to go on a walk with me, for old time’s sake. Sage only worked Monday through Friday. He never painted on the weekend, not even when he was left on his own.
But it still took some doing to talk him into leaving the house.
“Wally might call,” he fretted. “He said he would.”
“But he doesn’t get to Minot till ten, right?”
Wally, with an eccentricity that rather warmed me to him, wasn’t flying but taking the train to North Dakota—an interesting choice. Or maybe it was the only economical way of getting there.
Sage’s other objection was that he’d been thinking of going on a ferryboat ride. He had been on countless ferryboat rides. He had taken countless photographs of ferry-boat interiors. And he had painted countless images of them, in one “Vehicle of Transport” after another. Why he needed to go on yet another ferryboat ride was a little unclear to me. But after putting some strong pressure on him—I explained that I didn’t have time to go all the way to Bainbridge or Bremerton and back—I was able to steer him into taking an hour’s stroll with me along the lake.
Steep lanes led the way down. Bicyclists hissed along the Burke-Gilman Trail, shouting “On your left!” to dawdling pedestrians. Waterfront houses with docks lined the lakefront. Sage, with his sharp features and colorful saddle shoes, his bow tie and shimmering sportsjacket, made his usual striking contrast to the company he was keeping: the Lycra-clad joggers and roller-bladers around us, the denim-clad dogwalkers and stroller-pushers. As we turned down the path that led to the beach, people stared at him and then at me, as if to see if I was aware that I was keeping company with a fashion lunatic. I stared defiantly back at them.
We found a bench and looked out, past the lifeguard and swimmers and ducks, at the lake. We talked about this and that. There was a small exhibition of his work at the Frye that was coming up—a big deal!—and he also mentioned a future project he had in mind: the possibility of doing a “vehicle interior” of a motorcycle. Was there any way, he wondered aloud, of capturing in paint the sensation one had, when riding pillion on the back of a Harley, of being “enclosed” in wind and noise and light? (When, I wondered, had Sage ever ridden pillion on the back of someone’s Harley?)
And then we alighted, as I’d intended to all along, on the subject of Wally.
Sage fretted at the amount of time that Wally was spending with his grandmother in Minot: “I don’t like him being gone so long.” He worried whether, upon Wally’s return the next week, he, Sage, would have remembered to buy all the favorite grocery items that he, Wally, liked to eat. He’d already made several trips by bus up to Lake City.
All this fretting seemed a little ridiculous to me, and before I could stop myself I said with open skepticism, “So how long do you think this thing with Wally is going to last? Another year? Maybe two?”
Sage looked at me in shock.
“Wally is forever,” he said.
“Wally is forever?”
The words sounded so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but echo them.
“Yes, he is,” Sage insisted.
“So Wally is really ‘it,’ then?”
Sage looked at me with a pitying smile: “Wally is my muse. I thought I told you.”
He fluttered a hand against his heart as he said this, like a swoon-prone Southern belle, tiny but headstrong, who’d corralled her man. Dressed in his parody of male drag, he was still the preening peacock, still the delicate flower. And with his Gallic good looks—deep back in his east-of-the-mountains ancestry on his mother’s side were fur-trapping métis merchant-traders who’d built a series of forts along the Columbia—he retained the élan to carry the whole show off.
I wanted to puncture this line he was giving me. I wanted to show him how deluded he was. And I must have been feeling reckless because I turned our conversation to his work.
“But you’re all about technique,” I said. “It’s the technique that makes the paintings what they are.”
He looked at me warily, not quite sure where I was going with this.
“And it’s an amazing technique,” I continued. “I’ll grant you that. But it’s not like it’s the product of inspiration from on high, is it? I mean, it’s not the kind of thing you need a muse for.”
Here I thought to myself, but did not say aloud, that even the dogged way he went about painting his paintings—on a strictly unvarying
schedule, with not a lick of work done on the weekend, not even a sketch, because weekends, and also national holidays, were designated “time off”—merely went to show how very little “muses” and “inspiration” had to do with all the pieces he kept churning out.
To my surprise he took no offense at my comment on his lack of need for a “muse.” I almost had the feeling that if I’d gone ahead and said what I’d been thinking about the markedly uninspirational nature of his weekdays-on, weekends-off painting routine, he wouldn’t have taken offense at that either.
“You don’t understand,” he said mildly, then got up and resumed strolling. I followed him.
Out on the lake, motorboats buzzed and, between their foamy wakes, sailboats slanted precariously. We took in the spectacle of the pleasure-boats, floatplanes and the opposite forested shore. And then Sage asked me: “Have you even looked at the paintings lately? The ones I’ve done since Wally?”
I felt guilty here. I couldn’t really say I had “looked.” It would have been more accurate to say I had glanced at them. But how could I admit to this?
“Of course I’ve looked,” I said.
“I guess I wondered what you had to do to get free access to the Smith Tower elevator car when it was empty.”
Sage turned away from me. And I panicked. I feared I was about to lose him altogether. I had failed him as a lover a dozen years ago at Cornish and now I was in danger, through my own deliberate sabotage, of losing him as a friend, in spite of the fact that I admired him. And I did admire him, admired his work, knew it had a hold on me, even if I sometimes disparaged it. For some reason it was the subject matter, not the work itself, that was a stumbling block for me. Never mind that collectors were now paying thousands for it; and never mind that there were lots of other painters I loved without giving a hoot, one way or the other, what their particular subject matter was.
I was even willing to admit that there were millions of vehicle interiors out there in the world and that no one had ever studied them with quite the intensity Sage had. But how could you spend your whole life painting nothing but vehicle interiors? What about the view from this beachside park, or the view from his house overlooking the lake? It drove me a little crazy that it would never cross Sage’s mind to paint these panoramas—or to paint Wally, for that matter, if he loved him so much.
At the same time I had to concede that the very fact that he didn’t paint these views, didn’t paint Wally, seemed to speak well of him; seemed to suggest a certain integrity to his actions or lack of action… although what the rationale or source of that integrity was, apart from a certain stubbornness of focus, I couldn’t begin to say.
And here I’ll confess: I never, even after his death, got to the bottom of it—never came close to answering the question “Why vehicle interiors?”
But this is skipping ahead. Right there, by the lakeshore as we walked it, I was stuck more on what Sage thought was happening in the paintings he’d done since Wally.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said. “I just don’t get it. Tell me what you’re driving at.”
He gave me a look so different from his usual playful-sardonic mien that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. If I hadn’t known him better, I would have said there was “mystical fire,” or some other long-outmoded sentiment, shining in his eyes.
“Wally’s in every one of them,” he said.
“You mean you’ve painted him in somewhere, like ‘Where’s Waldo?’”
“No, I haven’t painted him in. But he’s there, if you look. You can feel him.”
This was getting a little too woo-woo for me. “Subliminal presence” wasn’t a concept I could readily associate with the massive Wally. But Sage persisted with it.
“These new ones,” he said, “they’re good. They’re the best I’ve done so far. They have a tension. They have a certain spirit to them: Wally’s spirit. You could say they’re a sort of shrine to him.”
“A shrine,” I repeated.
“A shrine to Wally-the-Muse,” I proposed.
“Yes, exactly,” Sage replied, as though taking me seriously, as though he thought I’d finally gotten it.
But I hadn’t gotten it.
Well,” I said at length, “whatever else he’s done, he’s certainly bumped up your asking price.”
And that was as far as I got. That was as much as he would tolerate.
We turned back from the beach, faced away from the lake-and-mountain view, started up the hillside lanes that led to his house.
As we walked, we said nothing. But I noticed with curiosity, if not quite alarm, that Sage who’d never been much of an athlete—he was the runt of his family, with six or seven older brothers all twice his size and quadruple his strength—scarcely had the breath to say anything anyway. In spite of his charming youthful get-up—boyish cowlick, optimistic tie—he looked strangely worn out, defeated. And in my paranoia I grew cer-tain that this look of his, this drained expression of defeat, was strictly emotional in nature rather than physical, that it stemmed directly from what I’d just said to him.
I haven’t just discouraged him, I thought. I’ve crushed him! Either that, or I’ve given him conclusive proof that mine is not the sort of world that he or anyone with his talents would ever want to live in.
By the time we were in sight of his house, he was so pale I had to ask if he was all right.
“I just need to sit for a second,” he said—and plopped right down by the roadside. “I always get tired coming back up.”
He was sitting in a bed of dead and dusty leaves. But he didn’t seem to notice this. His action made no sense to me. He was so tidy, so dapper in appearance. How could he be this tired? How could he bear to get his clothes dirty?
“The house is right there,” I pointed out.
“In a second,” he panted.
And then, after some minutes on the ground there, he lifted his small self up and made his labored way to his own front entrance.
He didn’t invite me in. He didn’t even say goodbye, really—just looked at me from his threshold, like a brightly costumed sparrow.
“I should check,” he said. “Maybe Wally called.”
And then he gently closed the door on me.
Sage died—not that day, not that week, and not before Wally got back from North Dakota. But by the end of that month. His heart. He’d had a problem with his heart, and none of us—not his friends, not his doctor, not even Wally—had been smart enough to guess it. He was only thirty-three. Instead of being an early-career retrospective, the show at the Frye became an accidental memorial. And I didn’t just “glance” this time—I looked.
I looked as I’d never looked before.
And I saw.
Sage was right. There had been a leap.
Between “Vehicle of Transport No. 468” (a Toyota Camry interior) and “Vehicle of Transport No. 469” (another Toyota Camry interior) there had been an ascent into a higher tier of accomplishment, difficult to describe in words but obvious to any eye. The paintings were precisely dated, not just with the month and year, but with start dates and finish dates and even, on some of them, the time of day completed. Three years ago, at the age of thirty and within a week or two of meeting Wally, Sage had entered his “late period.” And he’d been intensely conscious of it.
I was no longer a painter. I couldn’t have explained to anyone the technical details involved, beyond his long-ago switch from cotton canvas to linen as soon as he could afford it. But that had been well before Wally; that didn’t explain the leap. I’d scarcely spent any time with Sage in his studio in recent years, so I could only guess at what specifics—what brushes, what brush-strokes, what particular mix of paints—had been put into action to make this leap take place. All I knew was that the pre-Wally canvases, as clever and inventive and accomplished as they were, came across as mere ingenious exercises, whereas the post-Wally paintings, even when they depicted exactly the same subject matter (that Toyota interior, three sequential escalators at Pacific Place, the lower car deck of the ferry Wenatchee), soared. They had almost an element of protest to them, as though Sage were insisting, “This is beautiful, this is important, I can do something with this—something that’s not just clever.” There was a deliberate imbalance to the later paintings’ composition that charged them with energy. There was a vivifying tint to their colors that drew you into them with an almost three-dimensional effect. I was sure that if he were still alive Sage could have told me exactly which artists he’d “ripped off” to achieve this effect—he knew his Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age inside out. And he could have told me, too, why in his hands these borrowed effects of reflection and counter-reflection, of mirroring glass and burnished surface, were working so well together. For Sage was nothing if not an intelligent analyst—of both his own paintings and anyone else’s. He took pride in what his paintings had accomplished, almost as though they were his children and had done what they’d done all by themselves. Although I suppose, going by our last long conversation on that walk along the lake, he wouldn’t have said it was the paintings that had done it this time. He would have given credit to his “muse”: Wally.
Wally was at the opening, of course, and I felt a little sorry for him. He was having to bridge a strange and painful gap, accepting both condolences and congratulations—condolences on Sage’s loss, congratulations on the incredible show.
I got distracted picturing myself in Wally’s position, bravely enduring my bereavement even as I savored, with pride, my feat in having brought out the best in Sage in his final years—not just the best of his talents, but of his personality. For Sage had been a little less manic, a little more thoughtful and serene in these last few years, hadn’t he? Or had that just been fatigue… a symptom, perhaps, of his undiagnosed heart condition?
Whatever the case, I envisaged myself in Wally’s place, smiling and emotional, tearful but ecstatic, ready to explain or reminisce about Sage to all the world—especially to any reporters who happened to be in the room.
You can see how desperately I wanted to play the role of widower, and how well I thought I would do at it. But the part wasn’t mine. It belonged to Wally.
Turning toward him, I expected to see small arias of display-worthy sentiment playing over his pudgy features. I expected to see him hugging people and shaking his head at the sadness of it all, then spreading his arms out at all the paintings around us, at this legacy, to exalt in what a marvelous visual world Sage had left for us to dwell in…
Wally was doing none of these things. He may have been heart-broken. He may have been traumatized, anguished, in collapse. But not a jot of this showed in his face. He was, in fact, so completely inexpressive that, as usual, there was no real telling what he was feeling.
Wally, when I looked at him, simply stood there. Wally, when I studied him, blinked back at me. Wally inertly accepted the comments and compliments and condolences given him, but gave so little back that it occurred to me to wonder, as I studied him, whether he might not be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome or some other similar ailment. There was something that damaged, that curtailed, about his whole emotional-cognitive apparatus. How could Sage have loved this lump? Or was being a “muse” not necessarily the same thing as being loved?
I took another turn around the exhibit, examined a Cessna interior Sage had done in his twenties, a yacht’s below-decks furnishings, a night-trucker’s cab where you could almost taste the blowjob Sage had traded for the view from behind the wheel. These early paintings had plenty to offer too, but they were flashy, they were showy, they were almost snide comments on the world—whereas each of the post-Wally paintings was a whole world unto itself. And as such they were haunting, endlessly viewable and capable of triggering obsessions: Sage’s obsessions.
Even when he wasn’t actively at work on a painting, Sage was preoccupied by it, more attentive to it than he was to any of the people or events unfolding around him. He would try to put a pleasant face on this, especially at dinner parties or gallery openings. But it was always the painting that counted for him, that was uppermost on his mind, not the fuss of openings or review coverage.
So perhaps it made sense for him to have a boyfriend who was also devoid of fuss?
I remembered when Sage first introduced me to Wally and I asked—as soon as was practical—what on earth the attraction was.
He lifted his head dreamily, paused to think, then said, “Well, he’s always punctual, that’s one thing. He’s always so precise! You can count on him being where he says he’s going to be, exactly when he said he would get there.”
“But anyone can do that,” I objected.
Sage shook his head sadly: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe they can. But hardly anyone ever does. And if it’s someone coming to see you—someone who says he’ll be there to meet you when he said he would—”
His smile grew so wide he couldn’t finish his sentence. Instead he just shrugged his shoulders as though in disbelief at his luck, as though recounting the most romantic episode in his life.
“It’s erotic!” he insisted. “Punctuality is an erotic quality. It shows you really like a person.”
I was about to disagree with this, when he laughingly me cut off.
“I mean, look at you,” he said. “You could never make it anywhere on time.”
Which made it clear I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
In the absence of Sage, in the wake of Sage (for that was what it felt like—as though we were all bobbing corks on an ocean, still in agitated motion from the mighty vessel that had passed us by), what we were left with was… Wally.
Along with what paintings we had, and we all had a few, Wally became our central “connection” to Sage, our way of prolonging our sense of contact with the man we’d loved so inadequately.
But we didn’t quite know how to act upon that contact, how to put it into effect.
It was partly a question of scale, it seemed. Wally was so preposterously tall. Wally was so outrageously wide. Wally was of such incredible heft—a sort of shifting junior manatee, gliding from room to room—that it was awkward to know what to do with him. And what was there left of Sage in Wally? The more we regretted our own personal histories with Sage, the more we tried to find out. It was almost as though we thought of Wally as a shrine now, a shrine containing Sage—just as Sage’s last paintings were a shrine containing Wally.
Shrine or no shrine, Wally was an enigma—and a labyrinth. And there was, we concluded, only one way to find your way through a labyrinth. You had to enter it.
Dan was the first to act. He got a jump-start on the process; we hadn’t developed any strategy at this point. His bedding of Wally was more a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
But once it happened, we fell quite easily into seeing Dan as our “advance man,” our initial explorer on a quest that was, by its very nature, improbable if not impossible—to find out what it was about Wally that had taken Sage’s art to another level; to uncover what Wally had been able to give Sage that none of the rest of us could give him; to see what Wally had seen in Sage that all of the rest of us had seen inadequately or incompletely. Going even deeper than that, we wanted to find, in the presence and tone of Wally, whatever remained in the world of the tone and presence of Sage.
It was a few weeks before Dan reported back to us on what had happened—those details he could bear to go into, anyway.
Wally, of course, had stayed on in the Matthews Beach house on its hillside ledge overlooking the lake, with its side-garden flowerbeds, its little deck and patio, its two tinkling fountains. He squatted there like some beast of legend, to guard Sage Bentham’s legacy. The house itself, as I said, was modest. It was the setting that made the place what it was. And, again in a shallow way, it was the setting that we sometimes missed. Since Sage had died, the dinner parties had come to an end and we felt as though we were in exile from one of our favorite aeries in the city.
This naturally made us want to pump Dan for all the information he could give us.
“It must be pretty grim over there,” I suggested.
“It is,” he confirmed, “but partly because it’s not.”
“I guess it’s just weird being alone there with Wally.”
“Wally—” he began. “Wally—” he said again. “I’m not… sure,” he finally stammered out, “where things stand exactly… between me and Wally.”
“What does that mean?” Brent asked.
Wally, these last few months, had been busy, Dan said. There was a ton of material to archive—not just the records related to the more than five-hundred “Vehicles of Transport” Sage had painted, but the dozens of photographs he’d taken for each of them, plus the preliminary sketches he’d done for some of the more elaborate compositions. There was also a surprisingly large shelf of videotapes dating from Wally’s arrival in Sage’s life and perhaps containing vital clues to Sage’s modus operandi, about which Wally remained resolutely uninformative. (It seemed typical of Sage that he’d never bothered updating from VHS to digital.) Dan had tried but hadn’t found the opportunity simply to grab those tapes and go—so he had stayed and offered to help.
There was, in fact, still a lot to do, and Dan went back several weekends in a row to help Wally do it. Sage, in his twenties, had been erratic if not downright cavalier about keeping any kind of photographic trace of his completed paintings. There were some black plastic trays of slides at the bottom of a jumbled closet, but they were unlabeled and in no discernible order. The bills of sale and gallery statements were likewise a mess. Wally was taking it upon himself to document all of Sage’s career—going back at least as far as his first “Vehicle of Transport”—but this involved tracking down the present owners of the paintings, some of whom were difficult to locate.
Wally went about this in a businesslike manner. But Dan, on his third weekend there had been overwhelmed by the sense that these remnants, these fragments, these paintings, sketches and photographs were all that was left of Sage. And he just couldn’t stand the feeling of loss. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he “fell into” Wally—the way a small desperate boy might fall into his father, hoping to bury himself there, hoping to lose himself in a grown man’s strength.
“You didn’t!” I said.
“I did,” said Dan.
“You couldn’t have.”
“But what did Wally do?”
“Wally said: ‘Oh’—”
“Wally said, ‘Oh’?”
“—and then he just sort of went with it.”
“You mean the two of you really did it together?”
They had, he said—Wally as inscrutably as always; Dan partly faking it, putting more drama, more sense of occasion into this seduction than he really felt… but desperately wanting something from it too. Maybe absolution from his sins against Sage?
“And?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered.
“What do you mean: ‘Nothing’?”
“I can’t—I can’t do it—I just can’t go through with it again,” he said. “I told him I’d be back to help organize. But I can’t. It’s like a funeral over there. It’s like this endless, brutal funeral where everyone keeps missing the point, mimicking the same old emotions.”
“But it was only Wally and you.”
“I know, I know, but it’s like they keep on looking at you—all those photographs, all those paintings. And the sketches too. It’s like there’s people in them now. People I never saw before. And you can’t tell whether Wally sees them or not.”
“Look, I know it sounds crazy. But I can’t. I just can’t. I fucked it up with Sage. I don’t want to fuck it up with Wally.”
Dan had never given Wally’s feelings a second thought in his life. So why now? This was such a surprising turn of events, and so utterly unlike Dan, that we left the situation alone for a while. None of us contacted Wally. What did we have to say to him anyway? Wally, on his own, had never mattered. He had interested us only insofar as he related to Sage. It had always been Sage we were there for—even if, as lovers, we’d never been able to stick by him. And we would, I think, have left the whole thing alone, would have let it heal itself the way that any loss, with passing time, heals itself, rubs itself dim—if it weren’t for Dan’s mention of that VHS archive.
Had Sage, in the Wally Era, undergone a change of direction and moved from canvas to magnetic tape?
Had he, in his very last phase, attempted to become a video-artist?
That would be genuinely shocking, if it were the case, and there seemed only one way to find out—by “infiltrating” Wally again, by getting as close to him as possible.
This time we had a little more discussion about it beforehand. We considered, as we hadn’t considered with Dan’s spontaneous forays, what might be the wisest strategy to take. And finally we agreed that Brent and Alessandro should be the next to try.
They took their challenge gradually, approaching it as a team. First they invited Wally for dinner to their apartment on First Hill. Then they went with him to a show at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and I met them there. They weren’t small men, but seated on either side of Wally they looked dinky. They looked, in fact, like two debauched children symmetrically flanking an enormous maternal figure who, able to impose her will on them through her sheer physical presence, had no trouble keeping them in line.
Wally as fertility goddess?
Maybe I should have taken this fanciful thought more seriously than I did at the time.
One evening at the Matthews Beach house, when Wally reciprocated their dinner invitation and all three had imbibed sufficient to drink, things careened into the carnal and they steered Wally into the bedroom where they attempted to have some sort of congress with him. Again, at this move, Wally said, “Oh.”
Neither Sandro nor Brent could remember much of what happened after that.
“I guess we overdid it,” Brent said.
“I have-a bruises in a place I never have no bruises before,” Alessandro said in his lilting Italian accent.
He lifted his shirt to show us.
“And what about the tapes?” I asked.
“We never even get close to them,” said Sandro.
“He didn’t give us any time,” Brent added. “He wouldn’t let us.”
Had I seen where this was leading? At what point did I become aware that I was next in line?
I phoned Wally up, asked how he was doing.
He said he was doing well.
I asked if he would like to go for dinner sometime, mentioned a new place that had opened on Capitol Hill, called simply “Food”—which seemed both monosyllabic enough to be trendy and straightforward enough to be in synch with Wally’s appetites.
We went there. We talked about Sage. We somehow talked about Sage without saying all that much about him.
Wally, for instance, mentioned going with Sage to Tacoma to the Museum of Glass there.
“It’s not really made of glass,” he explained. “But it has a lot of glass in it.”
I told him, as gently as I could, that I was aware of this. Then I asked him what Sage had had to say about the exhibits there.
“Sage said he could never have worked in glass. He said he didn’t see how anyone could.”
This didn’t seem to be getting us very far.
Then Wally and I went to see the new Altman, because—“Sage always went to see the new Altman.”
We went. We sat. We watched. But at the end of the show, I couldn’t tell whether Wally had liked the movie or not. I only knew that I hadn’t.
I asked Wally what Sage had thought of Altman.
“Sage said some Altmans were good and some Altmans were bad. But even with the bad Altmans—“
“—he’s the only Altman we have right now,” I finished the sentence for him.
His eyes met mine in the mildest surprise: “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
I thought: This isn’t getting us any further than Sage’s reported opinions on the futility of glass art. But apparently our Altman date was a great success. Wally seemed to think so anyway. He apparently viewed it as a breakthrough of sorts, an initial step on our mutual path toward friendship.
“I so enjoyed talking about Altman with you. Would you like to come back to the house for a drink?”
This was it. This was my chance. I’d been handed my point of entry.
It was a clear and chilly autumn night. As we traced the lamp-lit path to the house, I could hear the wind making trees sway softly and branches rustle. From the deck out back, the houses of Kirkland and Juanita on the opposite shore were a twinkling band of lights. A yellowish moon, a Halloween moon, had risen from behind the Cascade Range and was shedding a pale, buttery path across the water.
Inside, Sage’s final series of paintings was lined up along the wall: “Vehicles of Transport No. 527” through “Vehicles of Transport No. 534.” All were roughly the same size, and each explored a different angle of playfully constrained subject matter: an empty Metro bus interior. First there was the view up the bus’s entry stairs, facing the fare booth and driver’s seat (with no driver in it). Then came the view down the aisle past the wheelchair spaces and seats reserved for the elderly (with no elderly or disabled in them). Then along to the “prize seats,” as I thought of them, on the rise above the tires, with their higher vantage point—but again no occupants. And finally some longer shots down the length of the bus, from front to back, from back to front, with not a soul to be seen in them.
Yet you could almost hear the electric whine of the bus on its overhead trolley wires, the cellphone conversations of the passengers, and the tumbling of coins into the fare box.
Wally brought out some red wine and glasses. I emptied half the bottle. Wally brought out some crackers and cheeses. I ate most of these, then drank more wine. I stood in front of the first bus painting, imagined climbing up those steps to where a driver ought to be and no driver ever was. And then I found myself falling into Wally.
Wally said, “Oh.”
It didn’t take us long to make the move to the bedroom. I felt like a minuscule mountain climber, rappelling up a shallow but strangely challenging peak. I couldn’t get my bearings; I didn’t know where I was. I only knew that Wally’s head was looming up ahead of me somewhere at the summit.
I had never been on an expanse so pale and wide. I assumed that, beneath me, Wally’s penis must be hiding and I felt it only polite to try to search for it—and search for Sage inside it. But then I grew distracted, felt I was adrift on some vast and sacred carnal cloud, and let myself give in to its pleasures. That is, I gave in to my own pleasure, straddling Wally and coaxing my spasm of seed onto his skin—a skin as ripply and rolling as swells upon the ocean. Wally again said, “Oh,” while making no apparent move to secure his own orgasmic release.
I had not found Sage in Wally—just as I’d never found a persuasive reason for Wally to be with Sage. But the advantage I had just taken of Wally apparently disconcerted him. Within thirty seconds after I was finished, he slid out from under me and said, “I think I have to take a bath now.”
If this was what had happened with the others, if they’d even made it this far, they hadn’t mentioned it. Wally withdrew behind the bathroom door, and I heard him turn the faucets on full. Given his size, I thought it was bound to be a very long bath. First he would have to fill the tub. Then he would have to lower himself into it. Finally there would be the even more cumbersome process of lifting himself out.
I knew the house well. I’d had a good account of where the videotapes were from Dan and Brent and Alessandro. And there had been plenty of times when I’d helped technology-impaired Sage operate his VCR.
I found the tapes. I turned on the machine. I popped in a cassette. I adjusted the tracking. I fast forwarded through some “snow” until I found what I was after.
There on the tape, like two genies trapped in a bottle, were Wally and Sage—naked, but not doing what you might expect two naked consenting adult homosexuals to do, especially not two who were videotaping themselves.
Sage was merely painting—and stood in Wally’s embrace.
That is, Sage was in the foreground with a canvas propped in front of him and a palette of paints at his side… while Wally, cloud-like, loomed from behind him.
Sage was working on the picture I’d just looked at, of the rubber-matted stairsteps with their black cushiony grooves and, above them, the apparatus of the fare-box with its dollar-swallowing box and its glass cage for coins. Beyond them was the brown vinyl bus-driver’s seat with no driver in it—while behind Sage stood Wally, half holding, half caressing him, administering to him a kind of “cuddle” I hadn’t seen or heard about before.
It had been a while since I’d glimpsed Sage naked and I’d forgotten how beautiful he was—a sort of delicate, aging boy-man, with his slender hips, narrow waist, sinewy arms and comical patch of fur at the center of his chest. In this barely moving image—Sage always worked calmly, his brushstrokes anything but dramatic—he held the spot-light, shone in televised miniature.
Wally, behind him, was enormous. Wally, with his large pale arms, was an edifice that swayed. And Wally, with his wandering hands, played a sacred energy up and down Sage’s torso, finding his straining cock and touching it, setting it lightly bobbing into motion, then withdrawing again, as Sage went on painting.
And all the while he whispered something into Sage’s ear.
I couldn’t quite hear what it was.
Quickly I checked at the bathroom door to see what progress Wally’s bath was making. After hearing some reassuring noises from the tub—walrus splashes, manatee wallowings—I rushed back to the VCR and turned up the whisperings loud enough to catch them.
In the fondest of cadences Wally was murmuring to his lover: “You shit just like everyone else. You fuck just like everyone else. You eat and drink and pick your nose, you pee and burp, you walk and get tired, you lick and taste and come—just like everyone else.”
Sage’s cock seemed only to get harder upon hearing this. And his brushwork just got more fastidious.
I punched out the tape, put in another, which after moving through more static snapped into focus.
There the two of them were again, in the same state of undress, in the same state of sexual excitement—on Sage’s part, anyway. The way the camera was positioned made it difficult to say what, exactly, was going on with Wally. Only this time the words coming out of Wally’s mouth were: “It may not be a perfect Bentham. It may not even be a good Bentham. But it’s the only Bentham we’ve got right now…”
I was getting my clue here—and it gave me no real clue at all.
I wasn’t just getting my clue. I was getting my revelation! And still it gave me nothing.
Were these “late” paintings more alive than the earlier ones because they were angry reactions to Wally’s words? Or were they more alive because Sage found painting in Wally’s whispering embrace such a blissful and comforting experience?
Was Wally, by heaping the same ego-flattening remarks on his lover that he had heaped on our two most recent presidents, telling Sage he was as great as any president could be? Or was this whole routine a deliberate provocation, calculated to incite Sage and spur him on with his remarkable work?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t anything I could ever have come up with—not in a million years. And while I knew what Sage had repeatedly insisted—“Wally is my muse… Wally is my inspiration”—I still wasn’t sure of the truth.
All I knew was that I’d gone about as far as any of us in Sage’s surviving circle of friends had been able to go. And I couldn’t see taking this any further.
I found my jacket. I dug out my car keys. I tiptoed toward the door.
As I let myself out into the side garden I could smell wood fires burning nearby, putting their stamp on the moldy scents of autumn. I took a moment to inhale this smell. I also turned to absorb this one last glimpse of the lake I was ever likely to get from this particular angle—the moonlit water, the lights on the opposite shore—because it seemed hardly likely I’d return here again.
And then, I admit, I hesitated.
Somewhere in the midst of my confusion I was countered with a moment of temptation.
What if Wally had it in his power to raise my commercial hackwork to the level of fine craft? What if, through contact with Wally, I could come up with something wor-thy, something that might actually endure for a while?
I wasn’t thinking of masterpieces. All I had in mind was work that might put me at or near the lowest rungs of what Sage, in his earliest days, had managed.
But no… it still wouldn’t be worth it.
Before Wally could emerge from his bath—clean and huge and purified, ready to let me make further claim on him—I got out of there.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.