Both bedrooms and the bathroom were in the back of the apartment. The doorways opened into a short, narrow hallway which delivered you to a dining room on the right and a kitchen on the left. The dining room led into the living room with no dividing wall. I found Ava placing two full plates on the dining room table. She looked up at me and smiled, "Good morning, sleepyhead." I returned her greeting and was struck anew by her startling loveliness. It took a conscious effort on my part not to gawk like some adoring fan at a movie star.
Moving back into the kitchen, Ava spoke over her shoulder, "I won't ask how your night was. I just came out of there a half an hour ago and you hardly stirred the entire time I was working."
"Oh my gosh! You haven't been to bed yet!?"
"Nope. I told you, the middle of the night's my favorite time to work. But believe me, once I get some chow in me, I'm gonna grab a quick shower and I will definitely get some shuteye." Ava pored steaming water from a kettle into a ceramic mug. "I'm gonna have some tea with my breakfast. Want some or would you rather have some OJ or water?"
I opted for the tea, which Ava brought to the table and then sat down near me. Just as last night, the food was delicious and I told her so. "I'm amazed any of your previous assistants could bear to leave this behind."
Ava smiled at my praise, "It's all part of my insidious plan to keep you from wandering too far from the drawing board."
As I ate, my eyes kept wandering back to her face. The singular beauty of her features seduced my gaze into lingering for longer and longer until she couldn't help but notice.
"Have I got ink or something on my face?"
"N-no. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare. It's just that... I mean... um.. well... I-I've never seen anyone so beautiful before." I blushed with embarrassment at how childish that sounded.
Ava reddened slightly herself and seemed pleasantly surprised at the compliment.
I responded, "That must've been odd to hear from another female, but I'm guessing guys must tell you all the time how gorgeous you are."
Ava blushed again. "When I first got into this business, I worked in a couple of different bullpens. And, yeah, some of the guys did lay it on a bit thick, but I never took it too much to heart. Not after seeing what wolves they were. Some of them would hit on anything in a skirt. So, it was easy to keep my ego from getting too puffed up by their attentions."
"Nowadays", Ava went on, "as a freelancer, I spend so much time to myself that I don't hear too many compliments or complaints from anybody. So, your appreciation is more than welcome."
Rising from the table, Ava began to gather our dishes. "It's long past my nap-time, sweetie. If you've got more work in you, you're more than welcome to stay here, but please don't feel obligated. I understand if you want to get out for fresh air or check in at home."
"No, no. After the sleep and the food, I'm ready to go again."
"Great." Ava's lips curved again into that unforgettable smile. "I need to do some grocery shopping later, but there are plenty of fixings for sandwiches in the fridge when you get hungry again. There's also juice and water and some fresh fruit on the kitchen counter. Please make yourself at home."
"If you hit a snag", Ava continued, "just move onto something else until after I'm up again. I'll see you in a few hours." With that, she wiggled her fingers and headed back to the bedroom adjacent to the studio.
Over the next several weeks, I gradually changed my schedule to match Ava's. She never insisted on it; it just happened. Like Ava, I came to enjoy the stillness at two in the morning.
The penciling part of the job takes pretty intense concentration. That's the phase in which you're figuring out the page layout, the panel compositions, the figure placement, the lighting, etc. We never talked much while working on that. But, we often had lively conversations while we passed the pages back and forth for inking or lettering. The late hours afforded fewer opportunities for me to get home to see my folks. I spent the night at the studio more and more often, sleeping in the spare bed during the day.
Drawing is usually a lonely occupation, so I truly came to appreciate Ava's companionship.
I couldn't believe how much I learned about the craft in such a short time. My skills were progressing in leaps and bounds under Ava's tutelage.
Since I was around the apartment so much during my off hours, Ava and I were also spending a great deal of our free time together. We went out to the movies at least once a week, often making it a Sunday ritual. The minute we exited the theater, we'd excitedly discuss what the director and cinematographer had done. They used many of the same visual storytelling techniques that we did. Closeups, long shots, establishing shots, framing devices - all the same. So, our weekly excursions were as educational as they were entertaining.
She'd also take me to museums and to probably every used bookstore in and around Manhattan, which, back then, was saying something! In those old bookshops, Ava opened my eyes to the master book and magazine illustrators of the teens, twenties, thirties and forties.
I can still remember the first time she introduced me to the work of Joseph Clement Coll. I actually got goosebumps! He had a confidence, a skill...no, a mastery that was almost angelic.
"I know these crazy deadlines don't leave you with much time to call your own," Ava told me, "but whenever you get the chance, you should experiment with other media. Oils, watercolors, pastels, anything that strikes your fancy. It's always good to have as many arrows in your quiver as possible."
"I don't mean to discourage you," Ava continued, "but newspaper strips are harder and harder to come by. For one thing, the number of papers is slowly, but surely dwindling. And even if you do get your own feature, who's to say you'll want to do that for the rest of your life? Magazine illustration is dying and illustrated books for adults are just about non-existent now, but there are still children's books and advertising work to be had. You don't want to limit yourself to just pen and ink."
As if to show me that she practiced what she preached, over the next couple of months I began to find a few watercolor paintings by Ava around the studio. They were all the same size and several of them featured recurring characters. This made me think they were illustrations for something specific, instead of random paintings done just for practice. I was curious, but figured she'd tell me about them when she was ready. I also wondered when the hell she was finding time to do them? I was there with her in the studio nearly all the time, it seemed. Did the woman never sleep?
I had been with Ava for about three months when my late night debacle happened. It had been a brutal, steamy day in the apartment. We didn't have air-conditioning and actually had to wrap terry cloth around our forearms to keep the sweat from ruining the pages we were working on. The heat and humidity had been so enervating that we quit around midnight and turned in early.
A couple of hours later, I was awakened from my sleep with a terrifying crash.
The day's sultriness had resulted in a truly spectacular thunderstorm.
I have had a mortal dread of thunderstorms since I was a child. I'd never outgrown it. A fact made abundantly clear with the next flash of light, which was followed by that awful hesitation... then a shattering burst of sound. A burst which shook the entire building.
Fear trumped humiliation and I made a beeline for Ava's room.
I hesitated in her doorway, unsure of what to do or say, when Ava rose up on her elbows and asked, "What's wrong, honey?"
Before I could answer, another explosion rattled the air. I screamed and dived for Ava's bed.
Pulling the covers over my head, I babbled, "I'msorryI'msorryI'msorry! Oh God, I know it's stupid, but can I stay in here until it passes?"
I can only imagine Ava's consternation when a full-grown woman came vaulting into her bed in the middle of the night, sobbing like a small child.
But, God bless Ava and her kind heart, she took me in her arms without a moment's hesitation and did her best to soothe me. She made gentle shushing sounds in my ear while one of her hands stroked my hair and the other caressed my back. With me wrapped in her embrace, she couldn't help but notice that I was trembling like a leaf in the wind. Ava said nothing of this. In retrospect, I realize she took great pains not to embarrass me.
When another blast of light lit the room like the sun, it was quickly followed by a detonation that rattled the building again. I screamed.
Ava held me tighter. "It's okay, sweetheart. I'm right here. Nothing's gonna hurt you."
Her voice, her hands, her warm embrace carried me through the storm.
When the tempest passed into distant rumblings, Ava whispered, "You can stay in here if you want."
"Thank you." I turned over, facing away from her. Ava snuggled up behind me and put her arms around me again. After the enervating heat of the day followed by the adrenalin rush of the storm, I was exhausted. The voice, the hands, the embrace that had carried me through the storm, now gentled me to sleep.
When I awoke in Ava's arms the next morning, it took me a moment to realize what I was doing there. Then, memories of the previous night came flooding back. I tried to extricate myself from her arms without waking her, but as soon as I stirred, it roused her. I got out of the bed quickly and said, "I'm sorry I woke you."
Glancing at the clock on her night table, Ava answered, "That's okay. Past time I was up, anyway." Ava looked up at me and I looked down. I was too ashamed to meet her gaze.
"You okay, Stephanie? You get enough sleep?"
"Yes, thank you." My eyes were still cast down at my dithering hands, as if they were the most fascinating things I'd ever seen. "I'm really sorry about last night. I hope I didn't..."
"Look at me, please."
I complied and in the midst of my embarrassment, the incongruous thought flitted through my head, "My God, she's gorgeous!"
She lay on her side, propped up on one elbow. Early morning sun streamed through the window, burnishing that resplendent complexion of hers.
Ava's voice pulled me out of my near mesmerization. "Are you embarrassed about what happened last night?"
I looked away from her, squinting into a haze of sunlight from the window. "Yes."
"Don't be. Please."
I didn't know what to say.
You can't simply tell someone not to be embarrassed.
You either are or you aren't.
I most decidedly was.
Ava spoke again, "The first year or so after I broke into the business, I worked in a bullpen. I was the only colored person and the only female. No one ever treated me badly, but I never quite fit in either. It's like they handled me with kid gloves... as if they were afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing."
"When I started getting enough steady assignments of my own, it made sense to freelance. So, I rented this apartment and set it up as a studio. Freelancing is lonely work, though. It seems like the only time I ever had any human contact is when I went in to pick up scripts and drop off art."
"Eventually," Ava went on, "the workload became too much for me to handle on my own. I hired an assistant who was recommended to me by one of my editors. He was a disaster. He was competent enough, I suppose, but it quickly became apparent that he resented working for a female, especially a female who was also a negro. So, that only lasted about three months before he hightailed it out of here."
"My second assistant came to me the same way you did, by way of Paul, your teacher, Mr. Dylan. Paul and I went to school together and got to be good friends. I don't know if you know this, but Paul is a pretty good comic book artist himself. Paul's problem, though, was he couldn't hack the deadlines. He was just too slow to make a decent living at it. So, he turned to teaching instead."
"Well, anyway, Geoff, the fellow Paul sent me, worked out just fine. He learned quickly and was a hard worker."
Ava got out of bed, stood on tip-toe and raised her arms upward in a back-arching stretch, groaning with the effort. She had on no sexy lingerie - just plain, flannel pajamas, and yet they did little to conceal the undeniably feminine figure beneath.
"Geoff was with me for two years. Being a painfully shy fellow, he didn't provide much in the way of companionship, but he did get the job done - and done well." Ava crossed the room to where I was. Putting her hands on my shoulders, she looked into my eyes with a disconcerting directness. "After a while, though, I ran into the same problem with Geoff that I expect I'll have with you before long."
"Problem? What's wrong?"
Ava chuckled and, with a surprisingly intimate gesture, she placed her hand on the side of my face. "Talent, hon," she chuckled again. "You're too capable to remain an apprentice for very long. I'm pretty sure you're ready to handle assignments of your own right now. I just wanted to ease you into it so the transition wouldn't be too jarring. When you're starting out on your own, those tight deadlines can be panic inducing. I figured it would be easier if you first encountered that while you're still here, so that I can provide backup in case you get into a jam."
"While I'm still here?" I repeated stupidly. "Does that mean... " I felt a physical pang at the thought that I might be leaving soon. I'd been so happy with our arrangement... so fond of Ava...
"We'll talk about that later. I seem to have wandered from my initial point, though, which was how much I've enjoyed having you here. As I said before, freelancing is lonesome work. I used to spend some of my spare time with Paul. He never seemed to give a damn about my color and he was a lot of fun to be around. Smart, funny, thoughtful. But after he got married, it became clear that his wife wasn't crazy about him spending so much time with another female."
"I'd actually gotten used to being on my own, again," Ava continued, "until you got here." She absent-mindedly brushed my hair back behind my ear with her fingers. "I'd become so wrapped up in my work, that I hadn't realized how lonely I was."
"I don't mean to harp on this and I hope I don't sound whiny, but when you're a negro working in a business where everyone else is white, you're always wondering where you stand... how you fit in. Sometimes it's just a feeling in the back of your mind, other times it's very much in the forefront of your thoughts. Unfortunately, to some degree, you're gonna find this out first hand. You may not be colored, but you are a woman, and the old boy's club doesn't exactly roll out the red carpet for females either."
"Since you've been here, that's all kinda faded into the background. It's been such a relief to be with someone who was at ease with me and with whom I could let my hair down too. If I haven't properly said thank you for being such a good friend, shame on me. But, I'm telling you now, it is very much appreciated."
I was momentarily at a loss for words. It was such an open, generous thing to say. How do you respond to that?
Before I could answer, Ava laughed, "That's my rambling, windy way of saying I don't give a damn about your fear of thunderstorms and don't you dare to be embarrassed on my account."
She took me in her arms and squeezed me tight. Her soft chuckle was in my ear, "You think you're the only one with fears? Get in line, sister. Get in line."
I pulled away so that I could look Ava in the eye when I asked, "Speaking of fears, what was that you said earlier about handling assignments of my own? Are you already plotting my departure?"
"Come with me." Ava took my hand and led me from her bedroom into the studio. She opened the top draw of her taboret, withdrew a stapled sheaf of papers and handed them to me, saying, "It's yours if you want it."
'It' was a script for an 8-page western comic book story.
"What do you mean, it's mine?" I wondered aloud.
"The full job... pencils, inks and letters... I think you're ready to leave the nest and fly on your own. What do you think?"
A shiver of excitement flitted through me. "I'm pretty sure I can do it, but what about you? I mean, I don't think I can get this done at the same time as I'm assisting you."
Ava's face lit with one of those luminous smiles. "If things play out the way I hope they do, I won't be needing an assistant anymore."
My excitement quickly transmogrified into a dizzying brew of fear and disappointment. This must have been evident from my expression, because Ava hurriedly assured me, "No, no, I'm definitely not trying to get rid of you. Quite the opposite."
"Here," Ava pulled her chair back from her drawing table and gestured toward it, "why don't you have a seat while I see if I can't explain my harebrained scheme. Keep in mind," she cautioned with a wag of her forefinger, "this whole thing is dependent upon a number of 'ifs'. Ready?"
I nodded my assent.
"Okay. You've noticed the watercolors I've had laying out to dry in the studio?"
Another nod from me.
"I'm amazed you haven't asked me about those. Weren't you the least bit curious?"
"I was dying to ask, but I didn't want to pry."
Ava put her hands on her hips and gave me a mock glower, "Stephanie, dear heart, if it's you, it's never prying."
"Next time, I'll ask. I promise."
"Good. Now, where were we? Oh yeah... the watercolors. Honey, you know how much I love comics, right?"
Yet another affirming nod from me.
"Well, if the deadlines weren't so odious and the production values so poor, I'd spend the rest of my life doing them. There's a wonderful variety of genres to explore and if this was an ideal world, there'd be an endless diversity of approaches to them. Just think, if the publishers used better paper and printing processes, you could do stories in pastel, oil, watercolor, charcoal... whatever the needs of that particular story."
"What's worse is the pay is so poor," Ava went on, "you have to bang out stories at a dizzying rate of speed just to make a buck. So, there's no time to really consider innovation with page layout, panel transitions, lettering... with every aspect of the craft. You're too busy just trying to get the job done."
"Eventually it grinds you down and you become a hack. Well, that's not why I became an artist. Remember all those illustrators I've been showing you?... Booth, Coll, Cornwell... those guys all found ways to take work for hire and use it as a vehicle to express themselves. To my mind, their best work is no less legitimate than the stuff you see hanging in art galleries. The crazy distinction that critics make between the best commercial art and fine art is completely artificial."
Ava's eyes flashed and her gestures became more animated as she continued her thesis. "Somehow, though, comics became the red headed stepchild of commercial art, in much the same way that the pulps did in literature. The disrespect is pervasive... from the publishers on down to the editors, the writers, the artists and the audience. But, think about it. Comics are just words combined with pictures. Isn't that what movies are? Yet, no one suggests that movies can't be art. Well, any subject matter you can handle in the movies, you can deal with in comics. History, biography, drama, comedy, romance... it doesn't matter. It's just a matter of how lofty your aim is."
I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of Ava's ideas and her expression of them.
"In fact," Ava leaned forward, adding emphasis to her words, "comics have many advantages over film. Chief among them is that they aren't bound by the limitations of the camera. Think of someone like Van Gogh applying himself to visual narrative! Can you imagine?" Ava took my hands in hers as if she could transmit the concepts by touch.