The Dead Wife
by Joel Best
I notice her at the opening of my one-woman show in Berlin, the exhibition that marks my acceptance as an important emerging voice in the art world. Five years I've labored towards this day, this show. I'm drunk on rare wine. One of Germany's most influential critics has publicly praised my work, causing a surge of 'sold' markers tagged to the paintings on the walls. Ingenues have been hovering around me like puppies, asking my advice on how to succeed as artists. "You think of paint as though it were oxygen," I've been telling them, and they've said yesyes sagely, pretending to understand. They're wannabes, all of them. You find their type haunting galleries with battered portfolios and attending openings such as this because they secretly believe fame is something that can be absorbed, like sunlight, like heat.
The dead wife stands at the wine table, sipping sherry, the same delicate smile curling her lips that I remember from the old man's estate.
Here. Now. My God.
One of the ingenues touches my arm and asks if I'm all right.
"Time's a circle," I whisper. "Move ahead as far and long as you wish only to end up right back where you started."
The dead wife broke down twice during my time at the old man's estate. Once I found her sitting on the floor in the middle of his sickroom, silent and still and smelling faintly, as always, of wax. I felt for a pulse --- the dead wife's wrist was cold to the touch and firm as plastic --- then commed the estate's gardener and exterior technician, Leon Bauvier.
Leon's face filled most of the screen. Dark skin slick with sweat, straw hat barely containing an unruly mass of dreadlocks, eyes lost behind the mirrored curve of a sun visor. I saw a bit of background; steel poles sprouting a thicket of razor wire and topped by a fist-sized laser turrets. I'd caught him working on the perimeter security fence. We were having a problem with raccoons this year, a prolonged dry spell driving them from the Oregon hills and into the fence's hungry lasers. More than once I'd wakened at night to bubbling animal screams.
Leon pulled up the visor and wiped his eyes. "What's wrong, Yuki? Why are you comming from the sickroom? Is something wrong with Mr. Hampton?"
A month after I came to the estate, the old man stroked out. Anyone lacking his money would have been consigned to the public wards, patients packed together like wood, minimal care. Sour breath, urine, feces, rot-in-progress. The old man was lucky to be rich.
"Still in a vegetative coma, but other than that, he's fine. No, I was taking a break from the studio and found this." Swivel the comm, let Leon see the motionless dead wife, swivel it back. "There's no physical damage I can see, so I'm thinking some sort of programming error's responsible for the breakdown."
"Could you check her out?"
Leon shook his head with a dance of dreadlocks. "I've got my hands full with this damned fence. Anyway, the biodoll isn't my responsibility. Drag the Russian out of his cave, make him do his own work."
The household maintenance was divided neatly. Leon was in charge of the gardens, the boathouse, the security perimeter. Sergei maintained the estate's interior systems; plumbing, lights, heating, cooling. Neither Leon nor I knew the Russian's last name, nor did we care. Sergei lived on vodka, he bathed far too infrequently, he spent most of his off-duty time patched into VR pornography. There wasn't much to like about him.
"Sergei will be drunk," I said.
Leon spat. "Isn't he always?"
I've pulled myself together. It's taken another two glasses of wine. Abandoning the ingenues I trail after the dead wife and her companion as they examine my paintings. I've seen this man's photograph on the financial page. His is a beautiful face, but hard and sharp as a ceramic blade. He's elegant and dangerous, an explosion waiting to happen. Stand too close and boom, little bloody fragments. I remember a short-lived scandal involving a lover of his who disappeared without a trace. The official determination was that the woman ran away to Portugal, that the dangerous man hadn't arranged her death. I don't know. Maybe he's innocent of any crime.
His fingers brush the dead wife's cheek. I may be the only person in the room to see he strays to the throat and gives her windpipe a little squeeze.
The dead wife gently kisses her escort.
My official title at the estate was painter-in-residence. The old man's lawyer found me eating lunch in a filthy Kyoto automat and offered me the position based on the strength of my landscape in the Nagasaki Biennial. My friends in Japan called me an art whore for selling my talents to an American billionaire, but I was the one with the gorgeous studio, the unlimited supplies, the freedom to create without worry of bills. The starving artist makes good. Think of the connections to be forged. This could be the jump-start to a real career.
Well. The best laid plans. The old man had his stroke before I completed a single painting. It turned out that there were no parties to show off my talent, no wealthy buyers for my work. . .
One evening Leon and I ate dinner on the patio while the setting sun wrapped the Oregon wilderness in sheets of flaming red/gold. The old man's estate occupied a small corner of Fremont National Forest, ten thousand hectares of trees and rolling green hills. What had once been a treasure of the American people was now his private retreat. Through political manipulation? Outright bribery? Maybe he'd just bought the land. He had enough money.
"I heard from Mr. Khambi today," I said as the sun slipped behind the distant hills. The old man's lawyer commed me in the studio around noon, breaking my concentration and ruining a morning's work. "The daughters are back in court trying to have the old man declared incompetent."
Leon shook his head. "Twenty minutes after they win that battle, you and I will be out of a job. They've been wanting to sell this land to the timber companies for years." He sighed. "I suppose I'll go back to Haiti."
The old man's children were greedy wretches, but could I claim to be any better? Didn't I spend his money on paint and canvas, turning out artwork he would never see?
"There's one good thing about all of this, Leon."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Sergei will be out, too."
Leon nodded as something stirred in the formal garden, a shadow moving quietly among the roses. He squinted and turned away.
"It's just the fucking biodoll."
I saw Evelyn Hampton pluck a fragrant bloom and walk in the direction of the koi pond. When I was hired back in Kyoto, Mr. Khambi mentioned that I find her to be an eccentricity.
His was an interesting choice of words.
Heinrich, the gallery owner, bubbles over the success of my show.
"Herr Schnelling has promised a most glowing review for the next issue of Neue Kunst. He also mentioned the possibility of a sidebar interview with you. With photographs!" The man is so happy he may burst and with good cause. My prosperity will reflect well upon his gallery. "I think you are going to be a very famous artist, Yuki. Promise that you won't forget your friends when that happens."
"You have my word, Heinrich."
He frowns. "Why such a mournful face? What could possibly be troubling you on this night of all nights?"
The dead wife and her escort stand before one of my landscapes. Do the other gallery patrons see them as husband and wife? Lovers? This would be one obvious interpretation. Note how she clings to his side, how he never allows her to stray more than a few inches. It is as though he cannot stand the thought of even so minor a separation.
"What do you know about being blind?" I ask Heinrich.
I met Evelyn Hampton an hour after arriving at the estate. I'd gotten settled in ---unpacking and washing off a six-hour trans-Pacific flight, going to the studio and setting up my easels --- and decided to take a walk through the formal gardens. It rained before dawn, a brief, hard Oregon downpour, and the air smelled of grass and bark and moist earth. Someone sat by the koi pond, a tall, pale woman in white who looked like a ghost. Her throat bore a silver necklace encrusted with opals, petrified drops of water. The old man's lawyer had explained a little about biodolls. The necklace contained reanimation circuitry and was permanently bonded to her flawless skin. One of the stones would be an on/off switch.
The woman saw me and smiled.
"You're the artist from Kyoto."
"Yuki Kumosawa. Mr. Hampton brought me in to be the Painter-in-Residence."
"You're. . .Mrs. Hampton." I hesitated. "What's your favorite color?"
"The best season of the year?"
"How old are you?"
That would have been thirty years ago, just before her tragic death from breast cancer. Thirty years and she hadn't aged a day. What was it like to be locked in time, forever forty-three and never forty-four, forty-five?
Biodolls were fashionable in the West shortly after the turn of the century. They never caught on in Japan. Forget the fact that we respect our ancestors enough to allow them a peaceful sleep at the conclusion of their lives. With a population nearing the billion mark there are enough living, breathing people to care for. Simply no room for animated corpses in our arcologies, thank you.
Did that make us unsentimental?
More like practical, I would think.
The reanimation process involved replacing the internal organs with bioplastic analogs, siphoning the blood, introducing an organic polymer into the veins, removing the brain, inserting a metallic neural sponge programmed with a Turing image. To some, the end result didn't just look like the dearly departed; it was that person, miraculously returned to life.
Mrs. Hampton began to sing softly, which made me sad. For a long time I didn't know why.
Surrounded by a hundred people, moving from painting to painting, the dead wife is methodically assaulted by her handsome, dangerous escort. It's a kind of dance with him, a ballet of hidden tortures, a touch here, a twist there. So clever this man, so subtle. How much practice does it take to hone such a skill, to be able to abuse without detection?
He runs his fingers in her hair, pulling just enough to inflict a little pain.
God, he's a wizard at this.
Once the dead wife malfunctioned halfway down the grand stairwell, one porcelain hand frozen on the gilded railing. I commed the Russian and watched as he repaired her. Sliding a tiny metal rod into her mouth, he probed the teeth. The sound of steel scraping enamel made my skin crawl.
"Do you have to do that?"
"Only if you want her up and running." The Russian inserted in another rod and did something that caused a tiny spark. I caught a whiff of burning flesh and heard a soft, wet click. The dead wife jerked, blinked, and began reciting a memory of a horseback ride along the shores of South Twin Lake. I'd heard this story before. It was one she often whispered to the old man in his sick bed. I listened, able to see the rippling water, hear the rhythmic thump of equine hooves. Close my eyes and I could almost be there. Even dead she had a gift for description, a real way with words.
The Russian started putting tools back into the briefcase.
"All better now."
"What was wrong?"
"A motivational switch developed micro-tumors. Biodolls don't age, but their cellular switching systems can develop errors in replication. She should be fine now. I've scanned her for other micros and there's nothing." He closed his briefcase with a snap, took a flask from his pocket, and indulged in a long drink. "Such a lovely piece of work, don't you think? Easy on the eyes, yes?"
He gave the dead wife a playful slap on the rump.
"Don't do that," I said angrily.
"You think she minds?"
"I mean it, Sergei"
The Russian laughed.
That girlfriend who supposedly ran away to Portugal. I have a sneaking suspicion as to her actual whereabouts. I'm building mental images of shallow graves and sacks rotting at the bottom of the Rhine. Or fire. The handsome, dangerous man might enjoy the clean, hot lick of flames as they consumed flesh and bone.
He's just broken one of the dead wife's fingers. I'm the only one who observes it happen. Everyone else, it seems, can see no further than her sweet, sweet smile.
I asked Evelyn Hampton to sit for me. Who could say where this whim came from? Call it the result of a series of thought fragments.
Look at her/she's dead/after a fashion?/just a Turing image now/Turings are supposed to be copies/how do you copy a person?/well, it's been done/really?/how awful/wonderful?/what is the dead wife, really?
Artists have a monkey's curiosity. It's one of the things that keeps us from being accountants. I'd been living on the estate for almost a year and still couldn't decide about the Evelyn. Was she thing or person? Appliance or woman? It was my hope, through paint and brush and canvas, to arrive at some sort of decision.
She didn't answer my request for a long time. I found her in the old man's sickroom, whispering more of her memories. Something about a lakeside picnic fifty years gone. She rearranged her husband's pillows and tucked in his sheet.
"This means a lot to you?"
"I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for us both."
"When would you like to start?"
"How about today?"
A canvas was waiting in the studio. We went there and I began the initial underpainting. The first broad strokes came easily and possessed a pleasing fluidity. Series of soft planes for the face, dark blur to denote hair, streak of gray for the nose, twin dots of green for the eyes.
The dead wife's smile gave me some trouble. Paint and scrape. I couldn't get it right. Evelyn's smile eluded me. What was a smile? A curved line. Yes and no. Paint and scrape. Not right. Try again. No, fuck it. Omit the smile for now. Later on inspiration might strike.
While working I talked to my subject. What kind of music did Evelyn like? What were her favorite books and vids? What foods were too spicy, too bland? Did she like it here in Oregon or were there ever any times when she wanted to travel? The idea was to learn enough about her in order to render effectively. To construct an accurate portrait, one must come to know the subject.
There came a point when the dead wife abruptly shifted the conversation. Where was I from? Did I have any siblings? What were my ambitions? Evelyn leaned forward in the chair, disrupting the pose, but I didn't mind because this shift marked a breakthrough to the woman who still existed within the Turing.
It was exactly what I'd been looking for. The warning bells should have been jangling.
They move to the gallery's secondary display space and a painting I had to fight Heinrich to include in the show. This is one of the best pieces I have ever created. Heinrich thinks otherwise, which is why it hangs with a grouping of minor landscapes and drawings, away from the large room with its wine table and jazz trio.
He says the abstracted portrait has no context. I'm a landscape artist, for Christ's sake. What's this stand-alone piece supposed to mean?
For Heinrich, art lacking context is mere masturbation.
I held firm. Include this portrait or cancel the show.
The smaller room is too hot and has terrible acoustics. Everyone seems to be talking too loudly and my ears hurt. There are all sorts of details that have no meaning, but I take them all in while wondering how the dead wife will react when she sees the portrait.
Will she react at all?
"Want to stop for lunch?"
"What time is it?"
"A little after one."
"Are you hungry?"
Leon gave me a thumbs-up.
I'd been a prisoner of the studio for weeks, painting non-stop from first light to dusk, working past the point of exhaustion, halting each day only when my hands were too numb to grip a brush. Evelyn's portrait consumed me. The art is like that sometimes.
This morning I hit a plateau. My brushes continued to move and trail blobs of color. Shapes took form, thin spots filled out. But after a few minutes the whole process stopped making any sense.
Step back. Where was the integrity? What happened to the paint's sense of life?
A few more half-hearted brushstrokes and I gave up. What I needed was exercise and fresh air. Leon had been complaining of a clogged recycling pump in the garden's lily pond, so I found him and offered to lend a hand. We spent the morning cutting roots that looked like jellyfish tentacles and clearing silt from the nylon mesh filters. Not much talking, but it felt good to be working outdoors for a change. I wore shorts and t-shirt and wading boots. The sun was hot against my skin. No worry about UV exposure. Great progress has been made in the science of sun blockers.
A huge willow stood guard at the edge of the pond, an ideal spot to rest and eat. Leon's idea of lunch was green tea, cookies, and small leaden wedges of oniony potato dough.
How did someone from Port-au-Prince came to love knishes?
After lunch, we sat back and lounged in the late summer afternoon. The air was warm and still, the sun bright. Gnats hovered in small clouds over the pond. Dragonflies drifted along like dirigibles, feeding leisurely. I felt wonderfully at peace.
Of course Leon wouldn't let it last.
"So how's it going with the biodoll?"
I sat up and shrugged. "What do you mean?"
"I see her with you all the time now."
"And nothing else?"
"I like her, Leon. I've gotten to know her. We talk a lot. I learn about her, she learns about me. . ." I stopped, unsure how to explain. The process had started slowly, Evelyn distant at first, then opening up and allowing me to see qualities that had been hidden before. Her warmth. Her humor. It was like taking apart a Chinese puzzle box, difficult only until you knew which panels to slide.
Leon's face was unreadable. "Yuki, she only looks like a woman."
"Evelyn is my friend."
"You're deluding yourself. The biodoll is a Turing, a trick of mathematics. Don't you get it?"
My face flushed. "Let's get back to work, okay?"
Portraits are a vital form of artistic expression. How we see someone else is an outgrowth of how we view ourselves. Take Bacon's self-loathing, transmitted into images that would be at home on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. Or Van Gogh, his riotous colors and distorted lines so tragically mirroring the lifelong desperation he carried within.
The dead wife stands quietly before her portrait. I used harsh colors and a highly expressionistic style. In order to complete this piece I had to beat the shit out of the canvas.
For just a moment I think she trembles.
Evelyn was late for her sitting. She was never late. I puttered nervously in the studio for a few minutes before going out and finding her in the old man's sickroom. She sat by his bed and whispered memories. A drive through the mountains this time. Her lip was split, one eye blackened. Someone had torn her beautiful white gown to shreds. Small bruises showed on her breasts and stomach.
It was the Russian who'd committed these brutalities. I had to drag the information out of Evelyn. For the longest time all she'd do was smile and say everything was fine, just fine, and that there was no need for me to be concerned.
"The bastard will go to jail," I hissed. Better yet, I'd tell Leon and we'd put the Russian's balls in a jar.
"But there's no need, Yuki."
"He raped you!"
"Yes. It's what he's wanted for so long." Again the sweet smile. I growled, my fists tight enough to hurt the bones of my fingers. Inescapable pictures filled my head of the Russian hunched over Evelyn, touching her perfect skin, doing. . .things to her. Suddenly it was twenty minutes later. I'd been in a fugue state. Evelyn held my hand like a mother comforting a child who'd just wakened from a nightmare.
Her cloying smile was more than I could tolerate. It made me want to scream.
I found the stone on her necklace that shut the dead wife off.
She reaches out to the canvas that bears her image.
Five years, five years. They trailed behind me like a line of stumbling footsteps.
Contacting the old man's lawyer, asking for release from my contract, leaving the estate. These would have been the first steps. Migrating from city to city, never happy in any one place for long, drinking more than was healthy. More steps belonging to other stories.
Seven months after abruptly leaving the old man's estate, I commed Leon to see how he was doing. Loose threads, I thought, or some such bullshit. If I hadn't been full of wine the comm wouldn't have been placed. Leon and I didn't part as friends. He wanted to know why I was leaving and I wouldn't tell him for fear he'd kill the Russian and end up in prison. I liked him too much to see him rot in some hole.
It must have been a sloppy conversation. The next day I woke with dried tears on my face. I poured a glass of wine and recalled Leon telling me the old man had died, giving his daughters a green light to sell anything they could lay their hands on. I wouldn't have cried over this, but hours later I remembered a little bit more. Towards the end of the comm I'd forced myself to ask about the dead wife.
"I'm not in charge of inventory," Leon said, bored with me and reaching for the disconnect.
Drunk, I would have shed tears for Evelyn.
The portrait is titled, "Dead Wife." It smiles down from the wall of the small display area. People find this piece disturbing not for the inescapable smile, which, I finally mastered, but for the eyes, silvered and unseeing as two coins.
Earlier in the evening one of the ingenues cornered me with an urgent question.
"Was the subject blind?" Prepared for my response, she had a little notebook in her hand.
"No, the artist."
She wrote this down, then her brow furrowed.
"But, but you're not blind. Is it symbolism then? Is that what you mean?"
I walked away without answering.
The dead wife stands before her portrait and reaches out again as though to touch the raw, unvarnished paint. Hesitating, she looks in my direction, and for a moment we are the only people in the world, dual rivers of data flowing to/from in a single glance. All of history is there between us, then the moment passes and I can't be certain if she even knows who I am.
Five years is a long time.
I have my own questions. How did Evelyn Hampton come to be in Berlin? Where did she go five years ago? Who has had control over her all this time? The dangerous man on her arm? Or have there been others?
Whatever the answers, she hasn't minded her fate. To believe that all I have to do is look at the damnable smile permanently fixed on her lips.
Leon, oh Leon. Would it please you to be right about illusions of mathematics, of devices designed to be anything a person desired? The old man wanted proof that he could forestall death with money, the Russian wanted a receptacle for his sexual frustration, I wanted a friend. To the dead wife it was all the same. Memories were friendship were rape, just lines of interchangeable code.
She walks with the handsome, dangerous man to the exit and suddenly I have to know if our friendship was real or merely programming. Heinrich yells at me as I push through the crowd. What, am I crazy? This is my public. . .
Heat, noise, dozens of people looking and pointing at the artist behaving like a fool. A few seconds too late I reach the street. A limo is already pulling away from the gallery.
Maybe Evelyn looks back at me through the bulletproof glass and maybe the warmth of her smile is real this time and maybe I'm blind again and seeing only what I wish to see.
Does nothing lie behind the equations?
Art and math are natural enemies.
The limo disappears into the night.
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