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About the Author
"I live in upstate New York with my wife and son and have sold stories to Electric Wine, Ideomancer, and Chiarascuro."
The Dead Wife
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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?"
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