Iris is sitting on a metal stool in the back room of Peter’s gallery. Her mother is perched on the edge of a shabby velvet couch, drinking coffee that Peter offered her from an electric pot and circling programs she wants to watch in the TV Guide. The room smells like turpentine and patchouli soap and is silent except for the local classical music station playing softly on an old stereo in the corner.
Iris’s mother digs in the purse at her feet. “Can I smoke in here?” she says.
“I’d prefer if you went outside.” Peter’s eyes alternate between Iris and the pad of newsprint mounted on his easel as he sweeps a stick of charcoal across the page in loose, fluid arcs. “Asthma,” he says.
She finds her pack of cigarettes and her lighter. “I’ll be back in a minute, honey,” she says.
Iris doesn’t move. She listens to her mother’s heels click across the cement floor of the gallery and then the pneumatic arm of the front door wheeze shut.
Peter had first seen Iris the week before while she was running errands with her mother in one of the few streets around the harbor that make up Gormouth’s downtown. She heard the long honk of a horn and turned to see Peter jogging towards them, waving in apology at the windshield of a car.
“Excuse me,” he said to her mother. He didn’t look at Iris while he spoke. “I know this is peculiar, but I’m a painter. I run the gallery across the street.”
He handed her mother a business card and pointed at a small storefront at the end of the block. “I noticed you walking with—your daughter?” She nodded. “I wanted to ask if you might let her sit for me someday.”
Her mother squinted at Iris. “For what?” she said.
Peter ran a hand through his thick brown hair and pulled on it slightly, like he was teasing something out. “I’m illustrating a book of transcendentalist poetry,” he said. Her mother didn’t respond. “Do you know Thoreau?”
“Yeah, I know him,” she said. “He lived on Walden Pond.”
Peter shoved his hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, which were stiff with streak s of paint in muted shades of green and reddish-brown. “There love is warm, and youth is young, and poetry is yet unsung,” he said, gazing into the distance above their heads. Iris’s mother shifted a paper grocery bag from one hip to the other and reached for Iris’s hand. “For Virtue still adventures there, and freely breathes her native air.”
They all stood in silence for a moment. Iris, who is thirteen, was embarrassed to be holding her mother’s hand.
“They’ll be figurative illustrations,” Peter said. “Clothed, of course”—her mother’s eyebrows furrowed—“and done in a sort of idealized naturalist style.”
“I’ll have to talk to my husband,” she said.
Peter flips to a new sheet. “Now put your left foot up on the rung of the stool,” he says. “Look to the right. Yes, like that.”
“What should I do with my hands?” Iris asks.
“Rest them on your right thigh, one on top of the other.”
This doesn’t feel natural to Iris, and Peter is frowning. “Bring them closer to your hip,” he says. “Lean forward, like you’re trying to see something.”
Peter holds the stick of charcoal in front of his face, bisecting her body vertically and then horizontally. “Relax your mouth. Tilt your head toward me.”
Iris is barely breathing. It’s a hot day, and hotter inside under the bright clip lights pointed at her. She prays that Peter doesn’t ask her to raise her arms.
A voice on the radio announces Bach’s Sonata Number One in G Minor, and Peter starts to hum as he works—a string of notes sliding into each other, touching and receding from the melody. Iris hears her mother walk back through the gallery and take her place on the couch. Out of the corner of her eye she sees her mother lean back and cross her legs, her shins streaked with light in the sheer pantyhose she wears under her church dress.
“So when are you going to start painting?” her mother says. “You said you were a painter, right?”
“I paint. First I do studies in charcoal.”
“First? How many times are we going to have to come here?”
Iris is counting the smooth silver pushpins stuck into the wall in front of her—each one a wish, the same silent wish.
“As many times as you like,” Peter says.
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