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Chapter 12

THE PICNIC

A week after graduation, as though nature planned it, on a warm clear Tuesday Clem took Lucy for the delayed picnic. During the last weeks of school she had been absorbed in examinations, graduating with marks only slightly below the first shining five, and this preoccupation had curtailed the time she could be at the studio.

Clem thus had had more time to devote himself to painting in his American manner. When the painting had been finished with finely drawn-in sepia lines he had been disappointed varnish was necessary to unify the canvas. Varnish was an old-hat concession. Also his landscape was flat, but this he attributed to prairie light, arguing that Nebraska was bright and sharp, new and clean. Even the billboard giants, with their toothy smiles, had their rightful place, comparable to the African art decadent Paris now idolized. And there was that American writer in Paris who had said at the Dôme that advertising was the American art in literature and painting, and was writing an article about it for Broom. New York did not boast the only skyscrapers. What about the soaring smokestacks everywhere in the U.S? Weren't they the classic columns of America, and they had a functional use producing the highest standard of living the world ever had known. One strange thing though, American farmhouses never looked rooted in the soil as did Europe's. Perhaps Americans were a city people even on their farms, using the soil as a source of wealth to carry them away from the isolation of vast spaces. No, that was only part of it, not taking into account the pioneers. Immigrants molded in the melting pot. Like himself, taking off a beret for a felt hat. Uniformity was a composite. A new form.

"You see, it's a painting of the church where I went to Sunday school set in a typical Nebraska landscape," Clem explained to Lucy when she first looked at the painting.

"Then why don't you paint yourself in as a little boy?" Lucy asked, since to her what was unseen did not exist.

Clem had been annoyed by her literalness, but later a small dark figure walking toward the church seemed the final accent required. A design, more than a figure, it gave the painting a touch reminiscent of Rousseau, and this pleased him.

"Say," remarked Henkel, as Larson nodded enthusiastic agreement, "that's really swell. It'd make a swell Christmas card, or calendar. You could sell a lot."

This admiration added to the pleasure Clem already was feeling at having seen his "Hepaticas" at the top of a Saturday page in the Husker-Sun. I ought to give Semy a painting to show my appreciation, he had thought. But Semy had declined graciously, saying he wouldn't dream of accepting so generous an offer. Getting something from Clem could wait until a more propitious moment, he thought. Moreover, Clem's paintings left him cold.


The rocking yellow streetcar to the river woods vibrated with a clattering echo as though the earth were a drum. The motorman, bored with continual stopping and starting through populated streets, liked to get up a good speed through the fields of mustard flowers and clover to catch himself a few extra minutes of relaxation at the end of the line.

"Think I'll buy me an auto this summer, then we can take longer trips," Clem shouted above the screech of the wheels.

In the studio he had explained his feverish anticipation of the picnic chiefly to its pictorial possibilities in relation to his new style. But the moment they mounted the streetcar a change took place. Sitting next to Lucy, holding a lunch basket identical to those Congress marketers used, he felt uncomfortable. Dammitall, he must look foolishly domestic, more like a Congress family-man than an artist on an outing with his model. The urge to touch her was irresistible. The conductor smiled indulgently, probably because of the beard. And she was no help, either, because of the stiff little-girl way she sat. Could it be she was afraid to be alone with him in the woods? Sure made him nervous to be with her, he'd never felt like this with a Paris model or the Greenwich Village girls.

When the streetcar hit open country he had an urge to shout and stick his head out the window as on boyhood trips to river woods when his pa had jerked him back with "want to bash your brains out, you fool?"

Lucy, squinting in the breeze, bared her teeth and nodded up and down in a mechanical gesture of listening. In the streetcar she passed into the demure posture always assumed when at the movies the lights went up, a casualness calculated to detour critical glances and to suggest that the boy next to her was virtually a stranger. Her distance now was not only routine behavior with boy or man in public, but also was due to abstraction in a problem which required solution.

New York City, looming near, was the Prince one must be prepared to meet and satisfy. She could not go to him an unschooled novice. Clem was the only friend who could initiate her into the secret of love. Boys, men, Semy, wanted to touch her in all sorts of places that made her want to push them away. But she would have to learn what it was and Clem, so kind and sweet and thoughtful, was the one to teach her.

They got off at a stop in a barren area, an unfulfilled real estate development bleaching like bones of a crumbled Greek city on a parched Sicilian plain. A half mile off, the diagonal river disappeared in a haze of trees blocking the dirt road along which they walked past a No Trespassing sign.

"This sure has changed since I was a boy. Guess they're going to lay out rows of bungalows here. At least they've still not cut down the woods."

Lucy looked at Clem sidelong. He seemed so anxious to have a good time. How long since he was a boy? Harry would've been all over her by now. Hard to think of something to say to him way out here in the middle of nowhere. An outraged crow screamed complaint at this week-day invasion, but an impertinent sparrow went about his endless business undisturbed.

"Isn't as windy here as on the streetcar, is it?" Lucy said, to say something.

"All those open windows, I guess," agreed Clem inanely, wondering if the pounding in his head was a summer cold.

"Darn it!" Her ankle had turned in a rut. "Guess I should've worn gym sneakers. It's good my ankles are strong from dance practice."

Clem glanced down at the delicate involute uniting the long convolute of the two columns to their tottering base and wondered wherein lay the strength. Must be a question of balance, like the point upon which the obelisk stood in the Place de la Concorde. Best keep one's mind on Egyptian engineering and art.

In the manner of all picnickers they tried and rejected a number of spots as too damp, sunny, not comfortable, or because a little green snake wriggled from under a rock. Finally they settled on a mossy, sun-patterned carpet barricaded by black trunks of trees and swords of fern, while all around still young leaves framed them in a vernal spell.

Lucy gathered the silken folds of last summer's blue flowered dress preparatory to choosing a place to sit.

"I'm hungry, aren't you?" Clem said, to break the enchantment of seeing her stand blended with the leaves in an alloy of Botticelli harmonic lucency.

He spread the white cloth, directed by Manet's ghost, and laid out the sandwiches Mrs. Brush had made in the belief that the friend to share them was a man. At the studio he had prepared a thermos of coffee, with milk and sugar in deference to Lucy's taste, and, more for its pictorial effect than to drink, added to the basket a raffia bottle of Chianti. In the center he built a still life of tasteless but beautiful storage fruit selected in Congress' one luxury store.

Lucy's appetite, never delicate as might be imagined from her slender contours, was whetted by the quantity of food issuing from the basket, a magician's hat.

"There's enough for a dozen," she piped delightedly and, pulling up her skirts, sat down on a pebble, cried "ouch" and jumped up to pull the skirts down again.

Clem laughed, took off his jacket and tossed it across. "Here, sit on this."

She closed her eyes as her teeth sank through Mrs. Brush's homemade bread, past smooth sweet butter, young lettuce and mustard fillip, reaching the juicy pink ham. She chewed slowly, lips closed, smeared lipstick uptilting the corners of her mouth and giving her the expression of one in a state of ecstatic beatification.

Clem grinned at her rapt countenance and inhaled a lungful of smoke to calm mounting desire. His mouth dry, he was bewildered because he never had felt this aching mixture of desire and affection. Before, with others, it only had been an impelling urge to be released. Maybe because she was so young. Must be out of my head to think of it. Still, in Paris the filles de joie sometimes were jeune filles in age if not in behavior.

Lucy's absorption was not only in this wonderful sandwich, the sandwiches at Bison Hall had been good too. That Bison evening didn't seem so bad now that she was almost in New York City. You had to begin somewhere sometime to get ready, like a plie before rolling up on your toes, or rubbing your slippers in resin before taking off. Feet feel good held tight in ballet slippers. Ballroom dancing would look terrible in ballet slippers. No style. Did The Starlings need to limber up? New blue tarlatan was crisp as lettuce and sequins as sparkling as these new tiny leaves. The dove was the coo of the saxophone, and the rattling thermos top was the cowbell of that cute drummer. He liked me. A mosquito's buzz was Opal's mean laugh. Even dirty old Mr. Brady couldn't help it because that's the way men and boys are. Except Clem.

She opened her eyes. The sunlight on half his face absorbed the rusty beard and he looked half Clem, half strange.

"This is the best sandwich I ever had. Aren't you going to eat yours?"

Her childlike enthusiasm relaxed his tension. He pulled the cork from the Chianti bottle. Drank. "Guess I'm not as hungry as I thought." Queer how you lose your hunger for food when the other hunger hits you. "I had a big breakfast."

The wine was raw but right. Her skin is champagne diluted with rose. Relaxed warmth. Just what I needed. Should drink this stuff more often. In Paris had it with every meal and in between. Sometimes right after breakfast. Flaky croissants and chicoried coffee in plein air sure was the right way to start the day. He remembered his longing in Paris for buckwheat cakes and com syrup, or ham and eggs. Maybe you always wanted something else. Not all Paris for this minute. He looked away from the glistening inch of flesh between the rolled stocking above her knees and the pulled-up skirt. Soon as she's finished eating I'll make a sketch. Holding a pear. She'll have to sit back a little, against the tree stump. Perhaps on it. She could take off her slippers and stockings.

"What a cute bottle. Can I have it when it's empty?"

"Sure."

"Let me taste." She crawled over the cloth and, holding on to his wrist, tipped the cup to her lips. Her eyes looked mischievously into his and he felt his face redden. As the wine reached her tongue, surprise replaced the other disturbing gaze and she pushed the cup away. "Ugh, it's sour, I thought it would be sweet! Do you really like this?"

Her little-girl distaste broke the spell. Uncontrollable laughter shook him and he leaned back in relief. It had been crazy to think her a woman. She did not like being laughed at and pouted. "I don't see what's funny. How can you like that sour stuff?"

"You're not old enough to appreciate it."

Lucy sat perfectly still, a small becalmed white yacht with unfathomable portholes for eyes, he thought. He corked the halfempty bottle, and lit a cigarette nervously.

"What do you say we get to work? Would you take off your shoes and stockings and sit back against the stump?"

"All right. Here?"

She was still offended, but a daddy longlegs cooperated in dissolving her reserve. She was a little girl again scrimmaging about as he cleared off the space, grinning. The woods stood indulgent, a stillness broken only by intermittent buzzings of exploring insects, an indignant bluejay, and the rhythmic counterpoint of the scratching pencil. Suddenly he was ravenous and with a free hand unwrapped a sandwich. Contrary to what he had told Lucy, he had eaten no breakfast.

Overwhelming drowsiness clung to a dangling heavy golden curl and toppled Lucy's head. She jerked upright. "Rest," Clem said contritely, "you're tired."

She abandoned herself to the ground and writhed in one long yawning curve from toes to fingertips. In the freedom of her movement she might have been a little stretching boy. This naturalness was one of her most disturbing characteristics, he thought, recalling instances when he had been embarrassed by her matter of fact reference to natural functions. Standing, he stretched too, distending his chest and flexing his arms; then lay down, but on the opposite side of the cloth.

"Too nice to work today," he said companionably, clasping hands behind his head.

They floated on wavelets of migrant thoughts.

Lucy rolled over, raised herself on her elbow, and looked at Clem. Another disturbing characteristic, he thought, she always looks at you directly when she speaks.

"Do you know a lot of people in New York?"

"Some, why?"

"I just wondered."

A ripple of a breeze, lost in wandering, stirred a twinkle of leaves and withdrew to the prairie, while millions of insects obliviously pursued oblivion. Lethargy overcame him. If only one could rest thus and the senses that swirl could unite to evolve that image so real to feel but so intangible to put down. He scarcely noted her soft silky movement.

Down a path in cavernous shade Lucy leaned against the trunk of an oak and put her arms around it. Her fingers sought the furrows of its rough black corrugations. The woods were heady with the same acrid earthiness of the hepaticas. Trees were like what men ought to be. Mysterious, unyielding, not beggars. Of course, men were stronger than girls, and one of these days if she wasn't careful a man would control her for that final moment they all wanted so much. Pressing her lips against the bark she felt herself respond to its ancient power.

My goodness, I guess I'm getting to be a regular old maid, I haven't let anyone kiss me for over a month. A jack-in-the-pulpit watched her scuff thoughtfully back through the humus to where Clem lay. He knew she was near and kept his eyes closed to prolong his thought of how he would awaken her with more than a kiss were she in his place. Why was she so young?

She knelt softly and bent over to look at his smooth relaxed lips. Her body's perfume penetrated his nostrils, arousing him again, but he held his breath not to frighten her away. He felt her fingers plant themselves in his beard, and then her firm drawing lips drew his. For a long moment he yielded and then reached up and. somersaulted her over his breast where she lay laughing her high mocking laugh, a trill which extracted indignant cheeps from nesting birds.

"You are a naughty girl," he said severely, holding her wrists in vise-grasp self-protection. He couldn't, she was too young.

"Don't you like it?" she badgered, kissing his eyes and nose, and then settled into his arms.

He held her close and prayed he could restrain himself. He rolled her over on her back and, holding her head cupped in his hands, searched her eyes. Did she know what she was inviting?

"Time to stop playing and go home." He lit a cigarette as a guard against her and jumped up to repack with a great show of energy.

Lucy pulled on her stockings and rolled them below her knees, and sat waiting for him to finish before putting on her slippers. He was whistling something to ward off talk but, as he could not carry a tune, she couldn't tell what it was and after several attempts to join in, gave up. Had he thought her bold, or was he afraid of her? Or himself, it must be. She had looked right back at him. He certainly was different from other boys or men who never waited to be invited.

The paint box at her side had not been opened and with her forefinger she traced the names of ships and places on the colored pasted labels. He had been to all those places in her geography lessons. Paris was the capital of France, and where Fashion comes from. Could a man live in Paris and not know fashionable girls? How long did it take before polite men acted like other men? Or did it have to be a specially planned night, like at the Crofter Hotel, and not just any old place all of a sudden? Did it begin slowly, like at lunch with Miss Shaver at the Brown Palace? No wonder he thinks I'm too young. Next time I'll know better. What if he doesn't let me come to the studio and pose any more? But the economic aspect receded as a secondary calamity to the possibility that they might stop being easygoing friends. Anyway now I can tell him I'm going to New York and maybe he'll be sorry. I'd better say something or he'll begin to talk first. She slipped into her slippers and buttoned the ankle straps as Clem stamped on the grave of picnic remnants.

"Let me carry your paint box. People will think I'm an artist and you're my model."

Clem was annoyed with himself for having left it to Lucy to speak first. He had been stupid about this whole episode. He should have manipulated the situation to have fostered their relationship in steady progression until she was old enough for love. Maybe a year. In the meantime he could look for relief elsewhere. It was amazing that he had not looked at another woman since meeting Lucy. Was he in love? He'd never felt like this about a woman and, love aside, she had become a kind of touchstone where his painting was concerned since that day in front of Cheever's window.

"The paint box is too heavy. You can carry the sketchbook if you want to."

She tucked it under her arm and hung to his shoulder to help her over the uneven rough spots.

"It's a shame we couldn't eat all that good lunch. Maybe it'll keep. And weren't we lazy, we didn't pick a single flower. I thought I'd have an armful for Mother."

"Late for spring flowers."

"That's right, spring's almost gone. Next week's the first day of summer, and then there are only five more weeks."

"What do you mean—five more weeks to what?"

"Mother and I are going to New York, August first."

It did not register. "For how long?"

"How long? Why to live! Remember I told you I was going to New York City to study ballet? I'm going to study with Fokine. My teacher in Denver studied with him and she's coming to New York City too."

He felt as though he had received a kick in the belly. So, just like that, while full of thoughts that perhaps here in Congress he might achieve a love and life never experienced in Paris, it was taken away from him. In Paris or New York he would have taken without thought what had been offered this afternoon. He never had felt so alone as this minute, not even in Paris.

"Do you want me to pose tomorrow?" Lucy asked hesitantly as they were about to part. He hadn't said one word on the streetcar.

He was silent so long Lucy decided he was angry and was going to leave without answering. Then he turned savagely, held her tight as though to keep from falling, and said "You'd better, if you're going to run off and leave me flat."

Men certainly are funny.