By Nicholas Siegel
The model shifted in the chair. Her back was straight, her legs were crossed, and her arms were limp at her sides. Her black skirt would have been too short for a proper business interview, and her white-collared top was unbuttoned and artfully disheveled like her dark, shoulder-length hair. Every few minutes, her left foot, adorned with red polish and squeezed into an open-toed heel, would bob up and down, usually about one and a half bobs before she remembered her orders to stay still.
Alfonse had little patience. Forget his degree from the Sorbonne. Forget his perfect complexion, broad shoulders, genius level IQ, and skill as a painter. He was always known as the guy with the short fuse. He was thankful for his temper, though. He concentrated best at a level of hunger, drowsiness, or arousal subtle enough to be eclipsed with anger.
The model was terrible. He’d have to get on Bernard for recommending her. Alfonse concentrated on a spot on the half-finished painting propped on the easel in front of him—a particular strand of hair that he had taken artistic liberty with. She had shit hair. He had to make some improvements.
“Ok, doll,” he said. “Try to look like you have some life in you. Your arms are like dead weights.”
Her eyes shot up to the right, and Alfonse knew she was trying to translate his instruction in her head.
“Dammit, Bernard. Tell her what I said.”
Bernard was leaning against a wall, off to the side, smoking a cigarette, even though Alfonse had told him many times in the past not to smoke in his studio. Since moving to Paris, Alfonse had learned how difficult it was to get Parisians to drop their cigarettes. Bernard translated Alfonse’s words into Italian. The girl took a deep breath, raising and lowering her shoulders, and resumed her lifeless position.
“Fuck. Tell her it looks like I’ve propped a corpse up in the chair. I can only take so much liberty with this,” Alfonse said. He continued dabbing at the same spot on the portrait, creating the illusion that he was actually working. It was a bad habit, one that sometimes resulted in patches where the colors were far too dark. No one else could see them, but when he looked at the finished paintings, he could always pinpoint the certain anatomical attributes where he was most frustrated, like a black light on a counterfeit bill.
Bernard struggled with the translation, probably because he was making it friendlier. Alfonse didn’t like translators dressing up his anger. Sometimes, anger was the only way to get the models to listen. They’d been coddled their whole lives, having everything handed to them. They needed a little aggression every now and then.
Alfonse glanced at his watch; he was behind schedule. He had promised his wife, Margaret, that he’d be home in time to take her to dinner. Lately she’d been so nagging, always asking for something or complaining. Their relationship was far from the easy-going romance it was before they got married three years earlier. Back then she could have easily lost him. Now that she had a bit more security, he wondered if she wasn’t taking advantage of it.
“Your arms, love. At least pretend you’re comfortable.”
The model crossed her arms in her lap.
Alfonse cried for translation.
“Abbassare le braccia. Rilassare,” Bernard said.
The model resumed her earlier position, and Alfonse sighed, pushing up his rimless glasses to massage his temples.
Margaret would have to wait, tonight. He was on a roll, creatively, and if he’d learned nothing else, he’d learned that these moments had to be seized. He’d spent many nights trying to prod his muse with alcohol, isolation, or both. It never worked, but he never stopped trying.
The painting’s background would be darkness. That always made them easier to complete, but in this case it was also the style he was going for. The dark would compliment the model’s colors and her position, as forced as it was. Early in his career, he would paint a subject, and then add a background later—maybe a café, or a park, or a monument. He’d learned, more recently, that his work flourished when all the attention was focused on the person. That’s what he was best at. No more forcing a struggle with trees, or bodies of water, or the sun. The sun was a bitch to pay justice to.
“Bernard, could you call Margaret and tell her I’ll be late tonight? I don’t know when I’ll be home.”
Bernard pushed himself off the wall and walked into the side room.
The colors were starting to accurately represent the girl. He mixed a few paints on the pallet to lighten the skin tone a bit more. Then the model started bobbing her foot again. He waited the usual one and a half bobs, but this time she didn’t stop. It didn’t affect the upper portion of the painting he was working on at the moment, but he couldn’t concentrate with the peripheral movement.
“Hai potuto…um…dita,” he said.
The model slowly raised a hand palm upward, spread her fingers, then squinted and looked up to the right.
Alfonse called for Bernard, who sauntered back into the room with his hands in the pockets of his gray blazer.
“For the love of God, make her foot stop,” Alfonse said, brushing his fingers through his short, gray hair.
“Il piede,” Bernard said.
The model’s foot stopped.
“What did she say?” Alfonse said.
“She didn’t say anything.”
“No, dammit, my wife.”
“I couldn’t get a hold of her.” Bernard resumed his position, perched against the wall.
At least he tried to get a hold of her. Now, if she asked later, he could tell her without having to lie about it.
The phone rang from the other room, and Bernard dropped his arm, the cigarette smoke drifting up into his face.
“Don’t worry about it,” Alfonse said.
The model looked off in the direction of the ring and then jerked back into position as if suddenly remembering her professional role.
“Just don’t worry about it,” Alfonse said. “It could be anyone, and I’m clearly very busy.” He focused back on the painting, looking for something to criticize, suspicious of the momentary adequacy of things.
“Next time you find me a model, make sure she’s in better shape,” Alfonse said. He noticed her lips purse in a feral display of self-control and noted that her English might be better than he thought.
“I told you not to smoke in here, Bernard.”
“Sorry, I’ll put it out,” Bernard said.
“Forget it, just light me one, too.” Alfonse brushed some color into the model’s eyes, and then some color into her legs. The piece was close to finished, but not quite. He still had work to do.
Nicholas Siegel was born and raised in Louisville, KY and earned his MFA in writing from Spalding University. You can find him on Twitter @NicholasSiegel.
"Sprezzatura" is Nicholas’s first published piece.