Set This House on FirebyCindysBob©
"Anything I want?" I asked teasingly.
"Anything," Leanne answered with a wry grin, her green eyes widening with mischief.
"Anything at all?"
"What aren't you understanding here," she laughed, tossing her head back in mock exasperation.
"And you don't get to say no?"
"I always get to say no," she winked, leaning forward to playfully nip at my neck. "But for today I'll briefly-very briefly-forgo that right."
The aspen logs were still popping and hissing in the fireplace, the darkened room alive with fiery flickers. I leaned back on the sofa, running my wineglass under my nose, but did not sip at it. Leanne lolled her head back, her dark brown hair cascading around her shoulders. Thirty-seven years old and still girlish in so many ways, this beautiful wife of mine.
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," I chuckled softly, watching her-gauging her. It was nearly midnight, the kids put to bed, the battered ruins of my birthday cake-black chocolate with toasted coconut-tucked neatly away in the refrigerator.
"You know you're on the clock, mister," she whispered, drawing her knees against her slim, angular torso. "I hear twelve chimes and the offer is officially rescinded."
"You'll do anything I want?"
"You only hit forty once," she said flirtatiously, the yellowish orange flames doing a fiery dance across her lovely face.
The card was one of those funny Hallmark ones, Leanne's offer-an "extra-special" gift-written across the blank facing in her graceful, curving script: Your darkest wish, your most hidden desire, all for the asking.
I laughed nervously. Sixteen years of marriage and she literally had me squirming in my seat. And I knew that she was enjoying the hell out of it.
"I want a painting of you."
"I want you to pose for a painting."
"...You're serious?" I knew I'd thrown her-she'd obviously expected something a bit more risque', something with at least a whiff of perversity about it.
"A real painting, a real artist doing it," I blurted ahead.
"A painting?" she repeated incredulously, starting to shake her head, totally surprised by my request.
"I want you to pose naked."
"What?" she stammered, cocking her head as if she hadn't heard what she'd in fact heard.
"I want you to be nude."
"No way," she stammered, bounding up off the sofa, her expression one of genuine mortification.
"You said anything."
"No way, no way, no way."
"Just think about it."
"I'm not letting somebody paint me without my clothes on. Are you crazy."
"It'd be a professional. We'd get somebody really good."
"An' what, hang it out on the living room wall?"
I burst out laughing then, her panicked response bordering on the comical. I reached up and took her hand, gently pulling her back down on the couch with me.
"It'd be our secret," I said soothingly. "Just for me. I'd put it in the office upstairs."
"Yeah, where the kids can see it any time they waltz in."
"We'd get one of those cabinets with doors on the wall. A lock on it an' all. Nobody would get to see it but me."
"You're serious about this? You've actually thought all this through."
"I want a picture of you-a painting of you in the nude. I want it down by the falls, with you out by the water and rocks an' all."
"Look, if you don't wanna do it, fine. No problem. You asked me what I wanted more than anything, an' this is it. This would be the best gift I ever got."
"You wouldn't care that some-some guy gets to look at me with no clothes on?"
"Could be some gal, you never know."
"You know what I mean," she answered sharply. "I'm being serious here."
"It'll be an artist. It'll be somebody with a good reputation."
"And it won't bother you?" she said, boring in on me with an accusatory stare.
"I don't know, Lea," I shrugged. "Maybe it will. I'm just telling you that this is what I want. It isn't something I just cooked up in that couple hours since I got your card. I've thought about this for a long time, I just couldn't think of a way to ask if you'd do it."
"And I gave you the perfect way," she sighed, sagging her shoulder into my chest.
"Yeah, you did," I spoke at her ear. "You think about it, okay. If the answer is no, then that's that. I don't want you doing something you wouldn't be comfortable with."
My wife sighed again, nestling her head under my chin, her fingers tracing circles over my thigh. I rubbed the back of her neck, feeling some of the tension melt away. I thought how much I loved her-how in a way I'd loved her from that first moment I laid eyes on her eighteen years before, when she'd driven my younger sister, Katie, home from Villanova.
I closed my eyes and had a perfect recall of her on that bitingly cold day right before Thanksgiving, the little Ford Escort she had, their dirty clothes and junk piled up to roof. She was wrestling a box out of the hatch when I came out to help them-her hair knotted back in a ponytail, a shapeless down jacket swallowing her up. She'd looked up at me and smiled, that was all it took. She owned me from that second on. Inside of two months we were dating, the four-hour commute between Villanova and Pitt seeming like nothing-then the engagement, then the wedding, then the kids. Like so many dominos toppling into place, all ending up with this terrific life we'd carved out for ourselves.
"It isn't a big thing if you say no," I murmured softly, stroking her silky hair. "Its nothing that important."
"No, a deal's a deal," I heard her say back after a minute or so. "So I guess you can start looking for a painter-somebody who'll hopefully make me look halfway good."
"He can't miss there," I whispered back, my heart skipping with delight, hearing the antique grandfather clock down the hallway as it started to chime its way towards midnight-a sonorous cadence of doom echoing through the walls of our picture-perfect home.
"I work exclusively in egg tempera," Kyle Donner explained as he took a seat across from us. "Egg white and pigment, no oils. No acrylics. I guess Andrew Wyeth and Hurd would be the best known of the people who worked in it." He sipped from the plain china mug gripped in both hands-he'd laced his coffee with a generous shot of Jim Beam, planting the square bottle at the center of his bare kitchen table, not bothering to even make an offer of it to either of us. "Tempera takes time, it can't be rushed. I've worked up my own palette, and I tell you that no one out there today can touch what I'm doing."
"That's why we're here," I answered, glancing quickly over at Leanne.
"I do only a couple portraits a year," he answered with a bored nod, again bringing the cup to his lips for a fast swig. "It's strictly dollars-and-cents work to me, a way to keep up the cash flow between my shows. It'll take at least a week and a half on average to complete, that of course though depends upon weather, seeing as how you want it done outside."
He reached down and moved through the snapshots of the waterfall, bending close to re-examine one of them.
"It looks like a pretty spot. How's the light?"
"Good I guess."
"Okay, then on to the particulars. I work on canvas. I do only about four or five hours a day, beyond that things tend to go down hill. I always work alone-just the subject and myself. I'm not there for entertainment. I don't put on a show. I don't want friends or neighbors dropping in to observe the creative process, sit there watching me like some damned gorilla in the zoo. Anybody shows up, I close the paint case. Understood?"
"No one'll bother you," I assured him-hell, I was probably going to have my hands full just getting the "subject" there on a daily basis.
"Good," he answered curtly. He pushed his half-rimmed reading glasses down his nose and stared right at my Lea. "Mind standing up, Mrs. Ellison?"
I turned and watched Leanne hesitantly get to her feet, averting her eyes from his. She was dressed simply, jeans and a white blouse.
"Turn," he ordered, his index finger circling in command. His tone was officious, bordering on the arrogant.
Kyle Donner was a very big man, standing well over six foot, his short-cropped hair generously flecked with gray. The professional bio I'd pulled up on him-the one listed with the Chicago Institute of Painting and Sculpture where he held a Fellowship-said he was fifty-two. He had the solid physique of someone who'd labored with his hands. A man who routinely sledge-hammered rock and sank postholes.
You could just read the contempt he had for doing portrait work-of having to shop out his talent for some fast cash. By the look of his beautifully preserved fieldstone farmhouse though, he obviously did very well at it.
"How do you feel 'bout being naked in front of me?" he spoke up evenly, still doing his cool, detached appraisal of her body once she'd turned completely around.
"I'm okay with it, I guess," Lea half stammered.
"Mind undressing for me right now?"
I looked up at my wife, seeing her cheeks flush to a deep crimson. I wondered at what my own expression betrayed, as his words had set off the most unexpected jolt of excitement within me, a fluttering rush of adrenalin that coursed through my veins like a blazing flow of lava.
Lea's mouth moved over silence, she literally couldn't seem to squeeze a single sound out, much less a cognizable word.
"You can relax, Mrs. Ellison," he went on after letting her hang there for an excruciatingly long moment, waving away the question like unappreciated cigarette smoke. "That's just little assayer's query I like to run on potential models. The ones who don't blush and turn fifty different shades of red like you just did tend make really lousy nudes."
He lifted the coffee to his lips and sipped, never once breaking eye contact with her. I glanced up to see if the tension had eased from her features-it hadn't.
"Okay, so here it is. You want a nude done, then you get a nude done," he said slowly, leaning forward in his chair, deliberately picking for his words. "Don't take offense at what I'm going to say, but I paint what I see. How old are you?"
"I was asking your wife, Mr. Ellison. ...How old?"
"I have two," Lea answered, almost glaring back at him now.
"Two kids and thirty-seven spell some not so perfect body lines. It's a simple fact of life. You pose for me, I paint you exactly as you are. Now you're very attractive, so don't take me wrong in this. All I'm saying is you ain't perfect, nobody is. Bodily perfection is a lie foisted upon our society by fairy Playboy photographers using a fucking airbrush, excuse my French."
"I guess I should be saying thanks," Lea muttered.
"No, I don't expect you to be saying anything," he clucked, breaking a smile for the first time. "All I ask is that you show up every morning on time. You don't where makeup. You don't paint your nails or do anything with your hair other than washing and thoroughly combing it. And most of all, you never ask me to see the canvas 'til I'm done."
"...Okay," Leanne answered, shooting me a look to see if I agreed. I nodded.
"And one more thing," he went on quickly as he slid his calendar across the table and flipped to July-two months away, the kids scheduled to be a Lea's Mom's house for three weeks-marking the dates we'd indicated. "Something you need to understand about the basic nature of posing for a nude portrait."
He hung a short pause out there, looking from Leanne's face back to my own, as if waiting for one of us to make a well-advised break for the door.
"Nudes are about absolute vulnerability," he said finally. "The best work within the genre always has that type of edge to it. It's the reason we started wearing clothes in the first place, something you can easily make note of even in your most socially primitive societies. Why wear a damned fig leaf when you're out alone in the deep jungle? ...Do you follow what I'm saying?"
"I guess," I shrugged, looking over quickly enough to see my wife make a wary nod.
"Well, that's what I'm going to be looking for in this work. That was the reason for the rather uncomfortable question I posed back there. If you'd just started stripping down without any hesitation-with your husband parked right there like he is-you would've been at best a mediocrity. Instead, you blushed like holy hell, and that I can tell you is exactly what I wanted to see. It's what told me you'd be well served with this type of pose. Honestly speaking, if it had gone the other way, I would've told you to find someone else to do this commission. You see, I might be willing to occasionally prostitute myself by doing this kind of payola work, but I never, ever, will do work that is beneath me artistically. I would've probably told you to go out and buy a digital camera and a tripod to get the nasty job done yourself."
He looked down without waiting for a response, circling the calendar date one more time.
"As I said on the phone, it'll be seventy-five hundred now, twenty-five hundred more on finish. Framing is your responsibility, though I like to work with an old Amish guy outside Reading. Terrific craftsman."
"We'd like him to do it then," I said quickly.
"I'll make the contact, he don't have no telephone. You'll have to drive the canvas down there yourself and pick out what exactly you want in terms of wood and styling."
"Will the painting be on display?"
"Usually nudes aren't. If you want an encasement made, this guy can do that for you too. I've never had anybody displeased with his work."
"That sounds good," I muttered, looking up a Lea and seeing that she was once more nodding along with what he'd said.
"As I also mentioned, I will have a series of photographs taken of the finished painting, strictly for my personal portfolio. And other than that, I'll be seeing you in July," Donner finished, gesturing for us to make our exit, never once offering either of us his hand.
"I'm a wreck," Leanne said to herself as she stood in front of the mirror in our bedroom. "I don't know if I can do this"
"Well, its a little late now," I muttered, looking out the window as Donner unloaded an easel and oversized paint kit from the back of his dusty Toyota pickup. He had pulled in late the previous evening-a twenty-four foot Prowler camper in tow-asking for me to lead him up to a nearby State Park where he'd booked a site for the next week. He saw me looking out the window now and offered up a grudging wave.
"He's waiting," I went on.
"Let him wait," she snapped, her voice fluttering.
I came up behind her and caressed her neck. I could feel my heart galloping in my chest at the thought of what would be happening in the next hour or so, as a literal obsession had grown within me over the past few weeks-ever since that afternoon at Donner's home. When he'd so bluntly asked Lea to undress for him.
"You are gonna be so beautiful," I cooed, imagining that moment when my wife would have to disrobe in front of him. Even now, looking back on everything that happened, I still can't truly understand why such a thing would strike such a sexual nerve with me. It hadn't been a fantasy of mine to have my wife exposed like that-the fact being, if anything, that I'd been a bit on the jealous side throughout our marriage, never wanting Lea to dress too provocatively, never wanting her to show too much of her lovely flesh.
"Yeah right," I heard her answer. "Thirty-seven and two kids, remember that!"
I turned her towards me, gently working the sash of her robe, pulling it wide and draping it over her shoulders. Leanne's body was slim, her stomach smooth with a slight roundness to it. Her small breasts still firm, the triangle of dark pubic hair barely concealing those perfect folds of creamy flesh. I watched as her nipples hardened in the air-conditioned chill.
"You are the most..."
The blare of a car horn cut off the words-a second went by, then two more blasts.
"My trumpet beckons," my wife said grimly as she tied the robe shut and stepped into her Berks.
Outside the air was already hot. Donner sat on the porch, a large steel thermos tucked under his arm.
"What's this?" he grunted when Lea stepped out onto the porch behind me.
"The robe? You going to the spa or something?"
"Go back in and dress in your clothes. Like you were going out to the market or something."
"No robe, none of that flip flop nonsense. You aren't going to the beach or heading in for a relaxing session at the spoiled rich-girl mud bath. Just dress like you normally dress," he went on, glancing down at his heavy stainless steel Rolex. "C'mon, time's a wasting."
Leanne hesitated, looking as if she was pulling up some argument to hurl at him-as if she was all too close to telling our artist to go fuck himself. For his part he stared her down with a bored expression before finally tapping his fingertip to the watch crystal in an effort to kick her in gear.
I watched my wife spin around, hearing her feet angrily pound up the steps.
"She's really nervous about this," I spoke up quietly.
"Then she shouldn't have signed on for it," he said without even looking up at me.
"Why don't you head off to work now, Mr. Ellison," he cut me off. "You hanging 'round probably ain't helping her much."
"It'll be best, trust me. First day on one of these deals is usually the hardest for 'em, especially the shy ones like her. So you just go an' leave us to our business here."
I started my car just as Lea came back out of the house-jeans and a teal green blouse, sneakers on her feet. I watched her from the rearview as she looked around for me, a hurt expression flashing across her face when she realized I was booking on her.
"Just watch long enough to make sure it goes okay," I mouthed to myself as I pulled clear of our long driveway, convincing myself of what I'd already decided to do-knowing that Lea's trepidation and the little drama that just played out on my porch had little to actually do with my decision.
The cutoff was an old logging road, a narrow slash of rutted red shale about a hundred and fifty feet long-a bit under a quarter mile from our home. I pulled my car down until it was out of sight, taking off my jacket and tie before starting down the fairly steep ravine. I knew the terrain well, having walked it off twice in the past two weeks. Even in dress shoes, I made fast work of the distance I had to cover, quietly working myself into position along a sharp rock outcropping that towered over the falls.
I heard Donner's voice as I settled into a shallow yaw carved out eons ago in some glacial slide. Slowly I eased my head up just enough to see them. Leanne was seated on a large rock, watching intently as Donner waded around in the large pool at the base of the falls. He kept looking up amidst the dense canopy of trees, obviously looking for the right spot.
"Here," he said, loudly, pointing to a shallow grotto of rock bracketed by churning threads of water. "Come on in."
I watched as Leann slowly got to her feet, kicking off the sneaks and bending to roll the jeans up along her legs.
"Why don't you try taking 'em off," he grunted, tossing his head in frustration. When she didn't respond immediately, he went on roughly: "C'mon, get your clothes off and get over here."
I slid up along the rocks now, my heart racing, the blood literally pounding through my skull. As I said, I'd obsessed nonstop about this exact moment for the last couple weeks, unable any longer to deny how the thought aroused me on some deep primal level. Still I hadn't expected this, not this almost blinding excitement I was now feeling. I realized then that I'd planned on this little excursion all along-probably from the first moment Lea had offered to sit for the fucking painting.