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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Saturday
Apr202013

« In Which We Go Up And Down The House »

Higher Up

by HENRY RUBENSTEIN

"They get excited for a bit," Davis said to her. "A short while, and then they move on."

She asked why, petting his black labrador Reefer. Both were old beyond her imagining.

"My father was a tailor," Davos said. "He started at it when he was sixteen. He would help the other men in his trade - letting them use his machine when he could. Some of them were transient, and when they moved on from a place, it was considered bad form to return."

"I didn't know that," she said. The dog licked her shoe carefully, as dogs do.

He said, "It doesn't take much for a habit to turn into a credo."

He nodded off. Whether he did from sheer tiredness or an illness she could not have been aware of, I do not know.

She climbed the stairs. The house contained six levels.

The first level housed a large kitchen, such as might be featured in a medium sized restaurant, with a broiler, several ovens, some of them still operative, and a sizeable freezer. It was there on the linoleum that the dog often did its business, possibly because the floors had been easier for Davos to clean. The residue had not been cleaned well, however, and the smell was both reprehensible and familiar by this point.

The third floor contained Davos' bedroom, his study, his books and a a small kitchen intended for use by servants, with a dumbwaiter servicing the bottom three floors. This was where she cooked when he could eat something more than chicken broth.

The third level was the gallery. Perhaps at one time it only held certain paintings, but now it contained all the canvases Davos refused to hand out to museums. He had explained this part of the riddle the day before when she had asked. She noticed his eyes twitching as he spoke, and his gestures became almost incomprehensible, never matching the words completely.

"An institution that charges those who enter is not even a whorehouse, since there you are only expected to pay if you are serviced. What does a museum provide?"

She explained she had thought it was access to great works of art.

"I do not use the internet," he said, "Could you not see all of them there as well?"

She said probably some of the work, but certainly not all, could be found there.

"And my work?"

"Does it bother you?"

"It does not," he said, taking his fifth pill of the morning with a glass of water she handed him. "What bothers me is the idea of visitors paying someone besides myself to see it." She licked her lips.

"But possibly they - I'm sure they paid you for the paintings, or someone did, and so you had presumably been compensated."

"My father was a Marxist," he said. "He was not a Stalinist at all, but he did put stock in Marxism. He believed it was the solution to poverty." Davos' laughs turned into coughs, and he demanded the water again.

"He was a poor tailor."

"That's right," Davos said. "If I asked him for money, he always gave it to me. I was his favorite; when my brother asked he would comply sometimes, but usually not at all. He made me feel like I was above my brother."

"How did your brother feel?" she asked.

"I didn't care," Davos said. "I was accustomed to the idea of inequality. And so was my father."

Saturday she performed various meaningful tasks, such as shopping for groceries and answering correspondence. Sunday was her only day off, and he suggested she make use of it by abandoning the premises. One of her exes wrote her from time to time, and she did not mind the anachronistic interplay. It seemed to fit her life with the artist. But she felt that at base, she was the kind of person who preferred the idea of being in love to the thing itself.

She asked Davos about this the following Monday after she had returned from mailing another letter.

"My brother was like that," he said, "but it's no critique or insult. This was his best quality, the one I most envied. He was taller, more beautiful, had more friends than I did. And when he experienced a thing he gave himself over to it so completely it was like nothing else existed."

She thought whether she was that way, and asked herself whether it was something to be envied.

The fifth floor contained a fully featured lap pool, and it was there she checked to see if it had been clearned properly. It indicated the property had once been a hotel, but little else remained from that period. It was Davos' main source of exerise, the only time she ever saw him move quickly or break a sweat.

Her job, as he floated around, was to give him bottled water when he asked for it, and change the music at regular intervals if he called out between a stroke.

He preferred Tchaikovsky, but he also loved the great operas. Afterwards, he would explain the plot to her. Here were some of those summaries:

A woman believes she is in love, but takes it back.

A man doesn't understand himself, but he loves the smell of the woods, and the sway of the oceans.

A Jew pretends to be a Gentile for a short period. Afterwards, he has trouble forgiving himself until finally he is able to.

A woman falls in love with an extremely appealing man. She finds out he is cruel to others, but overlooks it.

A doctor playfully mistreats a patient, who he later learns is his mother. He weeps at length.

The sixth floor was an attic of sorts. It contained Davos' odds and ends, as well as the possessions of the man's daughter Virginia, who lived abroad. She was not permitted in the attic, and once he had caught her wondering what was up there.

"It's nothing secret," he told her. "It's only that I don't go up there myself. And if you did, you might find something to remind me of those days. Then, I would start thinking of them, perhaps only for an hour or two, maybe longer."

"She was a beautiful girl," she said. "She is, I mean, although I have no way of really knowing."

"She's a happy person. Not like me." He coughed, almost hacking up what was inside of him.

"I don't think I know how to be happy," she said.

"When I look at my dog," he said, "I see something completely different. Not an animal, but a place. My father believed that some part of his pets carried on in the next ones. Of course it was a part of him, not of them. The more I think of him saying that, the more angry I get. He was not a superstitious person, but that does not truly excuse it. Any lapse, not matter how small, constitutes a critical error, and unmans the thinking person."

She tried not to smile at that.

"You may laugh," he said, and fell silent for a minute or more. "On Sundays - that was the only day my father took off from work, and even then he sometimes went back into the store if a customer called him - he would take us into the mountains. We played cards, or talked with each other. I hope this is the last time I remember it. But there is little chance of that, is there?"

She was permitted to examine the paintings, although her duties afforded her little time in which to do so. The night themselves felt too short, she was continually awake longer than she thought she really should be. She could see Davos' work in her mind's eye, probably because she was afforded little other stimulation. Sometimes he painted people, and when he did they were almost in a state of transition, moving from one thing in order to assume another identity entirely.

One Sunday in June she was writing a letter in the local coffee shop. A couple was arguing behind her, at first about the woman's tardiness, and then about the man's expectations for their relationship. Because of the way the sun came in the window, they switched seats. The argument began and although she tried not to listen, it was entirely impossible to concentrate.

By the end of it, she had concluded the woman was Davos' daughter. On her way back to the second floor, passing by the post office, she left the letter she had written in the pocket of her jacket. There would be a time, in the near future, where it could be placed in the attic without attracting much notice at all.

Henry Rubenstein is a writer living in New York.

Paintings by Z.Z. Wei.

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