Read Killing Commendatore: A novel Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen

Killing Commendatore: A novel (2 page)

But once I got into it, I discovered that painting
typical
portraits was a pretty easy job. When I was in college I'd worked part-time for a moving company, and at a convenience store, and compared to those jobs, painting portraits was, physically and emotionally, much less of a strain. Once I got the hang of it, it was just a matter of repeating the same process again and again. Before long, I was able to finish a portrait quickly. Like flying a plane on autopilot.

After I'd been rather indifferently doing this work for about a year, I learned that my portraits were gaining some acclaim. My clients were really satisfied with my work. Obviously, if customers complain about the finished portraits, then not much work will come your way, and your contract with the agency might even get terminated. Conversely, if you have a good reputation, you get more work and your fees go up with each painting. The world of portrait painting is a fairly serious profession. I was still a beginner, but I was getting more and more commissions, and could charge higher fees with each work. The agent in charge of my portfolio was impressed, and some of my clients even glowingly commented that I had a “special touch.”

I couldn't figure out why the portraits were being received so well. I was less than enthusiastic, just trudging through one assignment after another. Truthfully, I can't recall the face of a single person whose portrait I painted. Still, as my ultimate goal was to become a serious artist, once I took up my brush and faced a canvas I couldn't bring myself to paint something completely worthless, no matter what type of painting it was. To do so would tarnish my sense of artistry, and show contempt for the kind of professional I was hoping to be. Even if I painted a portrait that I didn't love, at least I never felt embarrassed about the work I'd completed. You could call it professional ethics, I suppose. For me, it was just something I felt compelled to do.

—

One other aspect of my portrait painting was that I insisted on following my own approach. I never used the actual person as a model. When I got a commission I would meet with the client, just the two us, to talk for an hour or so. I wouldn't do any rough sketches at all. I would ask a lot of questions, and the client would respond. When and where were you born? What kind of family did you grow up in? I asked what kind of childhood they had, what school they attended, what sort of work they did, what kind of family they had now, how they had achieved their present position. Typical questions. I'd ask about their daily life and interests, too. Most people were happy, even enthusiastic, to talk about themselves. (Most likely no one else wanted to hear those things.) Sometimes the hour interview would stretch to two, even three hours. After this I would ask to borrow five or six casual snapshots of the person, just unposed, ordinary snapshots. And occasionally I would use my own small camera and take a few close-ups from different angles. That's it.

Most clients seemed concerned. “Aren't I supposed to sit still and pose for the portrait?” they'd ask. From the outset, they were resigned to enduring a long painting process. Artists—even if no one wore those silly berets anymore—were supposed to stand, brush in hand before the canvas, brow furrowed, as the model sat there, trying to sit up straight. Perfectly still. Clients were imagining the kind of scene they'd seen a million times in movies.

Instead of answering, I would ask them, “Do you want to do it that way? Being a painter's model is hard work if you're not used to it. You have to hold the same pose for a long time, and it's boring and your shoulders will really ache. Of course, if that's how you'd like to do it, I'd be happy to oblige.”

Predictably, ninety-nine percent of my clients declined. Most all of them were busy people with busy lives, or else elderly people who had retired. They all preferred, if possible, to avoid such pointless asceticism.

“Meeting you and talking together is all I need,” I would say, putting them at ease. “Whether I have a live model or not won't affect the result at all. If you find you're dissatisfied with the painting, I'll be happy to do it over again.”

After this I'd spend about two weeks on the portrait (though it would take several months for the paint to fully dry). What I needed was less the actual person in front of me than my vivid memories of that person. (Having the subject present, truth be told, actually interfered with my ability to complete the portrait.) These memories were three-dimensional, and all I had to do was transfer them to canvas. I seem to have been born with that sort of powerful visual memory—a special skill, you might label it—and it was a very effective tool for me as a professional portrait artist.

It was critical to feel a sense of closeness, even just a little, toward the client. That's why during our initial one-hour meeting I tried so hard to discover, as much as I could, some aspects of the client that I could respond to. Naturally, this was easier with some people than with others. There were some I'd never want to have a personal relationship with. But as a
visitor
who was with them for only a short time, in a set place, it wasn't that hard to find one or two appealing qualities. Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface is fogged up (which was more often the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again. Otherwise the darker side would naturally reveal itself in the portrait.

—

So, before I knew it, I had become an artist who specialized in portraits. And I became fairly known within this particular, rather narrow field. When I got married, I ended my exclusive contract with the company in Yotsuya, became independent, and—through an agency specializing in the art business—received individual commissions to do portraits for even higher fees. The agent in charge, a capable, ambitious person, was ten years older than me. He encouraged me to be independent and take my work even more seriously. After that point, I painted portraits of numerous people (mostly in the financial and political worlds, celebrities in some cases, though I'd never heard of most of them) and made a decent income. Not that I became a great authority in the field or anything. The world of portraiture is totally different from that of the
artistic
art world. And different from photography too. There are a lot of photographers specializing in portraits who are held in high esteem and whose names are well known, but you don't find that with portrait artists. Very seldom is one of our works seen in the world at large. They aren't featured in art magazines or hung in galleries. Instead they're hung in reception areas somewhere, forgotten, gathering dust. If anyone happens to look at those paintings carefully (someone with time on his hands), they still aren't about to ask about the artist's name.

Occasionally I've thought of myself as a high-priced artistic prostitute. I use all the techniques at my disposal, as conscientiously as I can, in order to satisfy my client. I possess that sort of talent. I'm a professional, but that said, it doesn't mean I mechanically follow a set procedure. I do put a certain amount of feeling into my work. My fees aren't cheap, but my clients all pay without any complaints. The sort of people I take on as clients aren't the kind to worry about price. People learned of my skill through word of mouth, and I had an unending line of clients, my appointment book always jam-packed. But inside me I felt no desire whatsoever. Not a shred.

I hadn't become that sort of artist, or that type of person, because I'd wanted to. Carried along by circumstances, I'd given up doing paintings for myself. I'd married and needed to make a stable income, but that wasn't the only reason. Honestly, I'd already lost the desire to paint for myself. I might have been using marriage as an excuse. I wasn't young anymore, and something—like a flame burning inside me—was steadily fading away. The feeling of that flame warming me from within was receding ever further.

I should have washed my hands of that person I'd become. I should have stood up and done something about it. But I kept putting it off. And before I got around to it, the one who gave up on it all was my wife. I was thirty-six at the time.

2

THEY MIGHT ALL GO TO THE MOON

“I am very sorry, but I don't think I can live with you anymore,” my wife said in a quiet voice. Then she was silent for a long while.

This announcement took me by complete surprise. It was so unexpected I didn't know how to respond, and I waited for her to go on. What she'd say next wasn't going to be very upbeat—I was certain about that—but waiting for her to continue was the most I could manage.

We were seated across from each other at the kitchen table. A Sunday afternoon in the middle of March. Our sixth wedding anniversary was the middle of the following month. A cold rain had been falling since morning. The first thing I did when I heard her news was turn toward the window and check out the rain. It was a quiet, gentle rain, with hardly any wind. Still, it was the kind of rain that carried with it a chill that slowly but surely seeped into the skin. Cold like this meant that spring was still a long ways off. The orangish Tokyo Tower was visible through the misty rain. The sky was bereft of birds. All of them must have quietly sought shelter.

“I don't want you to ask me why. Can you do that?” my wife asked.

I shook my head slightly. Neither yes nor no. I had no idea what to say, and just reflexively shook my head.

She had on a thin, light purple sweater with a wide neckline. The soft strap of her white camisole was visible beside her collarbone. It looked like some special kind of pasta used in some specific recipe.

Finally, I was able to speak. “I do have one question, though,” I said, gazing blankly at that strap. My voice was stiff, dry, and flat.

“I'll answer, if I can.”

“Is this my fault?”

She thought this over. Then, like someone who has been underwater for a long time, she finally broke through to the surface and took a deep, slow breath.

“Not directly, no.”

“Not
directly
?”

“I don't think so.”

I considered the subtle tone of her voice. Like checking the weight of an egg in my palm. “Meaning that I am,
in
directly?”

She didn't answer.

“A few days ago, just before dawn, I had a dream,” she said instead. “A very realistic dream, the kind where you can't distinguish between what is real and what's in your mind. And when I woke up that's what I thought. I was certain of it, I mean. That I can't live with you anymore.”

“What kind of dream was it?”

She shook her head. “I'm sorry, but I can't tell you that here.”

“Because dreams are personal?”

“I suppose.”

“Was I in the dream?” I asked.

“No, you weren't. So in that sense, too, it's not your fault.”

Just to make sure I got it all, I summarized what she'd just said. When I don't know what to say I have a habit of summarizing. (A habit that, obviously, can be really irritating.)

“So, a few days ago you had a very realistic dream. And when you woke up you were certain you can't live with me anymore. But you can't tell me what the dream was about, since dreams are personal. Did I get that right?”

She nodded. “Yes. That's about the size of it.”

“But that doesn't explain a thing.”

She rested her hands on the tabletop, staring down at the inside of her coffee cup, as if an oracle was floating there and she was deciphering the message. From the look in her eyes the words must have been very symbolic and ambiguous.

My wife puts great stock in dreams. She often makes decisions based on dreams she had, or changes her decisions accordingly. But no matter how crucial you think dreams can be, you can't just reduce six years of marriage to nothing because of one vivid dream, no matter how memorable.

“The dream was just a trigger, that's all,” she said, as if reading my mind. “Having that dream made lots of things clear for me.”

“If you pull a trigger, a bullet will come out.”

“Excuse me?”

“A trigger is a critical part of a gun. ‘Just a trigger' isn't the right expression.”

She stared at me silently, as if she couldn't understand what I was getting at. I don't blame her. I couldn't understand it myself.

“Are you seeing someone else?” I asked.

She nodded.

“And you're sleeping with him?”

“Yes, and I feel bad about it.”

Maybe I should have asked her who it was, and when it had started. But I didn't want to know. I didn't want to think about those things. So I gazed again outside the window at the falling rain. Why hadn't I noticed all this before?

“This was just one element among many,” my wife said.

I looked around the room. I'd lived there a long time, and it should have been familiar, but it had now transformed into a scene from a remote, strange land.

Just one element?

What does that mean, just one? I gave it some thought. She was having sex with some man other than me. But that was “just one element.” Then what were all the others?

“I'll move out in a few days,” my wife said. “So you don't need to do anything. I'm responsible, so I should be the one who leaves.”

“You already decided where you're going to go?”

She didn't answer, but seemed to have already decided on a place. She must have made all kinds of preparations before bringing this up with me. When I realized this, I felt helpless, as if I'd lost my footing in the darkness. Things had been steadily moving forward, and I'd been totally oblivious.

“I'll get the divorce procedures going as quickly as I can,” my wife said, “and I'd like you to be responsive. I'm being selfish, I know.”

I turned from the rain and gazed at her. And once again it struck me. We'd lived under the same roof for six years, yet I knew next to nothing about this woman. In the same way that people stare up at the sky to see the moon every night, yet understand next to nothing about it.

“I have one request,” I ventured. “If you'll grant me this, I'll do whatever you say. And I'll sign the divorce papers.”

“What is it?”

“That
I'm
the one who leaves here. And I do it today. I'd like you to stay behind.”

“Today?” she asked, surprised.

“The sooner the better, right?”

She thought it over. “If that's what you want,” she said.

“It is, and that's
all
I want.”

Those were my honest feelings. As long as I wasn't left behind alone in this wretched, cruel place, in the cold March rain, I didn't care what happened.

“And I'll take the car with me. Are you okay with that?”

I really didn't need to ask. The car was an old, stick-shift model a friend of mine had let me have for next to nothing back before I got married. It had well over sixty thousand miles on it. And besides, my wife didn't even have a driver's license.

“I'll come back later to get my painting materials and clothes and things. Does that work for you?”

“Sure, that's fine. By ‘later,' how much later do you mean?”

“I have no idea,” I said. I couldn't wrap my mind around the future. There was barely any ground left under my feet. Just remaining upright was all I could manage.

“I might not stay here all that long,” my wife said, sounding reluctant.

“Everyone might go to the moon,” I said.

She seemed not to have caught it. “Sorry?”

“Nothing. It's not important.”

—

By seven that evening I'd stuffed my belongings into an oversized gym bag and thrown that into the trunk of my red Peugeot 205. Some changes of clothes, toiletries, a few books and diaries. A simple camping set I had always had for hiking. Sketchbooks and a set of drawing pencils. Other than these few items, I had no idea what else to take. It's okay, I told myself, if I need anything I can buy it somewhere. While I packed the gym bag and went in and out of the apartment, she was still seated at the kitchen table. The coffee cup was still on top of the table, and she continued to stare inside it…

“I have a request, too,” she said. “Even if we break up like this, can we still be friends?”

I couldn't grasp what she was trying to say. I'd finished tugging on my shoes, had shouldered the bag, and stood, one hand on the doorknob, to stare at her.

“Be friends?”

“I'd like to meet and talk sometimes. If possible, I mean.”

I still couldn't understand what she meant. Be friends? Meet and talk sometimes? What would we talk about? It's like she'd posed a riddle. What could she be trying to convey to me? That she didn't have any bad feelings toward me? Was that it?

“I'm not sure about that,” I said. I couldn't think of anything more to say. If I'd stood there a whole week, running this through my head, I doubt I'd have found anything more to add. So I opened the door and stepped outside.

When I left the apartment I hadn't given any thought to what I was wearing. If I'd had on a bathrobe over pajamas, I probably wouldn't have noticed. Later on, when I looked at myself in a full-length mirror in a restroom at a drive-in, I saw I had on a sweater that I favored while working, a gaudy orange down jacket, jeans, and work boots. And an old knit cap. There were white paint stains here and there on the frayed, green, round-neck sweater. The only new item I had on were the jeans, their bright blue too conspicuous. A random collection of clothes, but not too peculiar. My one regret was not having brought a scarf.

When I pulled the car out from the parking lot underneath the apartment building, the cold March rain was still falling. The Peugeot's wipers sounded like an old man's raspy, hoarse cough.

—

I had no clue where to go, so for a while I drove aimlessly around Tokyo. At the intersection at Nishi Azabu, I drove down Gaien Boulevard toward Aoyama, turned right at Aoyama Sanchome toward Akasaka, and after a few more turns found myself in Yotsuya. I stopped at a gas station and filled up the tank. I had them check the oil and tire pressure for me, and top off the windshield washer fluid. I might be in for a very long trip. For all I knew I might even go all the way to the moon.

I paid with my credit card, and headed down the road again. A rainy Sunday night, not much traffic. I switched on an FM station, but it was all pointless chatter, a cacophony of shrill voices. Sheryl Crow's first CD was in the CD player, and I listened to the first three songs and then turned it off.

I suddenly realized I was driving down Mejiro Boulevard. It took a while before I could figure out which direction I was going—from Waseda toward Nerima. The silence got to me and I turned on the CD again and listened to Sheryl Crow for a few more songs. And then switched it off again. The silence was too quiet, the music too noisy. Though silence was preferable, a little. The only thing that reached me was the scrape of the worn-out wipers, the endless hiss of the tires on the wet pavement.

In the midst of that silence I imagined my wife in the arms of another man.

I should have picked up on that, at least, a long time ago.
So how come I didn't think of it?
We hadn't had sex for months. Even when I tried to get her to, she'd come up with all kinds of reasons to turn me down. Actually, I think she'd lost interest in having sex for some time before that. But I'd figured it was just a stage. She must be tired from working every day, and wasn't feeling up to it. But now I knew she was sleeping with another man. When had that started? I searched my memory. Probably four or five months ago, would be my guess. Four or five months ago would make it October or November.

But for the life of me I couldn't recall what had happened back in October or November. I mean, I could barely recall what had happened yesterday.

I paid attention to the road—so as not to run any red lights, or get too close to the car in front of me—and mentally reviewed what had happened last fall. I thought so hard about it that it felt like the core of my brain was going to overheat. My right hand unconsciously changed gears to adjust to the flow of traffic. My left foot stepped on the clutch in time with this. I'd never been so happy that my car was a stick shift. Besides mulling over my wife's affair, it gave me something to do to keep my hands and feet busy.

So what had happened back in October or November?

An autumn evening. I'm picturing my wife on a large bed, and some man undressing her. I thought of the straps on her white camisole. And the pink nipples that lay underneath. I didn't want to visualize all this, but once one image came to me, I couldn't stop. I sighed, and pulled into the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant. I rolled down the driver's-side window, took a deep breath of the damp air outside, and slowly got my heart rate back to normal. I stepped out of the car. With my knit cap on but no umbrella I made my way through the fine drizzle and went inside the restaurant. I sat down in a booth in the back.

The restaurant was nearly empty. A waitress came over and I ordered coffee and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. As I drank the coffee I closed my eyes and calmed down. I tried my best to erase the image of my wife and another man in bed. But the vision wouldn't leave me.

I went to the restroom, gave my hands a good scrub, and checked myself in the mirror over the sink. My eyes looked smaller than usual, and bloodshot, like a woodland animal slowly fading away from famine, gaunt and afraid. I wiped my hands and face with a thick handkerchief, then studied myself in the full-length mirror on the wall. What I saw there was an exhausted thirty-six-year-old man in a shabby, paint-spattered sweater.

As I gazed at my reflection I wondered,
Where am I headed?
Before that, though, the question was
Where have I come to?
Where
is
this place? No, before that even I needed to ask,
Who the hell
am
I?

As I stared at myself in the mirror, I thought about what it would be like to paint my own portrait. Say I were to try, what sort of self would I end up painting? Would I be able to find even a shred of affection for myself? Would I be able to discover even one thing shining within me?

Other books
Startide Rising by David Brin
Mardi Gras Masquerade by L A Morgan
Con Academy by Joe Schreiber
Protection for Hire by Camy Tang
Mystery of the Mummy's Curse by Gertrude Chandler Warner
Examination Medicine: A Guide to Physician Training by Nicholas J. Talley, Simon O’connor
Ishmael Toffee by Smith, Roger
Undone Deeds by Del Franco, Mark