Orchard by Larry Watson
Rating: •••• (Highly Recommended)
Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com
Larry Watson’s novels have been tightly packed stories with huge philosophical issues unveiled and explored. His latest, Orchard, fits that pattern, and may be one of his very best novels. For painter Ned Weaver, art is everything. Early in the book, Watson sets up the key question, “As soon as he set his pencil down, the question that always troubled him and his art came back to him: must one understand an enigma in order to portray it to others?” (p. 45). Orchard describes the enigma, in the form of Sonja, whom Weaves both paints and loves, to the frustration of Sonja’s husband, Henry, an apple farmer. Here’s an excerpt of the dialogue between Sonja and her sister-in-law about her modeling for Weaver (pp. 158-165):
Henry did not usually drive June to school, but that day he insisted, and less than fifteen minutes after they left, Phyllis drove up to the house. Sonja was on the porch shaking a rug, and she watched skeptically as her sister-in-law stepped out of her long white car and leaned across the roof. "I could sure use a cup of coffee," Phyllis said. "Do you have the pot on?"
"Henry's not here." Sonja felt she had to convey that information right away; whenever Phyllis phoned or—these occasions were rare—came to the house, it was to speak to her brother, although she always made sure she engaged Sonja in an interval of polite conversation. Sonja did not dislike her sister-in-law, but they had so little in common she often felt uncomfortable in Phyllis's company.
"That's okay," Phyllis said. "We can talk a little girl talk."
"Is your mother all right?"
"She's fine. I was down in Green Bay yesterday. She's driving the nurses up the wall, but that's nothing new."
Still wary, Sonja invited Phyllis into the house. When they entered the kitchen, Phyllis untied her scarf and shook loose her hair. She was not only pretty but stylish, yet for all her self-assured beauty, there was still something about her that made Sonja wonder about her sister-in-law's happiness.
"Mmm. What do I smell?" Phyllis asked.
"I baked cupcakes last night for June to take to school."
"A special occasion? Don't tell me we missed June's birthday?"
"No, no. Nothing special. Just a treat for the pupils. Would you like one? I have four extra."
"Oh God, not for me." Phyllis sat down at the table. "I ate like a pig in Florida. I must have gained ten pounds."
Phyllis and Russell had returned from Florida the first of April, and though the following two weeks had offered little more than rain and skies, Phyllis's tan still looked as dark as though she had just stepped indoors from sunbathing.
How about you?" Phyllis asked. "Do you worry about your weight at all? I can't imagine you do."
"We don't own a scale." Sonja poured coffee for both of them, but she remained standing.
"Of course there are other ways of telling. I swear to God, Russ can feel an extra three pounds on me."
Sonja remained silent, and finally Phyllis said, "But you keep busy, don't you?"
"I keep busy. Yes."
Phyllis lit a cigarette and plucked a shred of tobacco from her lip. "Did Henry tell you what Russell's been up to? "
Sonja set an ashtray in front of her sister-in-law. "He didn't."
"He's buying a new sailboat. Another one, I said? But Russ just says after a couple years he finds he needs a bigger boat. So why don't you go ahead, I said to him, and make it a hell of a lot bigger this time. So we’ll see. He's down in Sturgeon Bay today making the deal."
Sonja was not sure whether to congratulate Phyllis or extend her sympathy. "I'm sure it will be a nice boat."
Silence, this time lasting as long as ten ticks of the clock hanging over the stove, overtook them once again. Finally, Phyllis rose and joined Sonja by the kitchen sink, but then she seemed to have nothing to say. For a long moment, the two women stared out toward the barn as intently as if each had heard her name called from that direction.
Phyllis took a breath. "So." She exhaled. "Henry tells me we're going to have someone famous in the family."
The remark so puzzled Sonja that she leaned back as if she had to see the speaker whole to understand what she was saying.
"Do I have it wrong?" Phyllis asked. "I was sure Henry said you were posing for Ned Weaver."
Here it was, the reason for Phyllis's visit. Sonja looked frantically around the sink for a chore that needed to be done.
Phyllis put a hand on Sonja's wrist. "Honey, I'm not kidding. Do you know how well known your artist is? I mean, my God—you're going to be in museums. How many paintings of you has he done?"
"I . . . I'm not sure. Drawings too."
"Has he sold any?"
"If he has, he hasn't said."
"Do you know what he gets for an oil painting? Russ's dad looked into it, because his mother has a couple little watercolors that she bought at his gallery. She liked these so much Bernard thought about buying one of the big oils for her. He couldn't believe what they sold for. I mean, Bernard could afford it, but he'd never spend that kind of money for a painting. Never. But people do, plenty of them do."
"He never talks about such things."
"No? Why don't you ask him to give you one of the paintings or drawings he's done of you. He 'd talk about it then."
"I don't think. . . Maybe he hasn't sold any of me. He once said he's not ready to release them into the world. Like one's child."
Phyllis turned on the tap and extinguished her cigarette. She opened the cupboard door under the sink and dropped the butt in the garbage. Straightening up, she looked sternly at Sonja. "Well, sweetheart, how do you think Henry will feel when those pictures are out there?"
Sonja gave back her sister-in-law's steady gaze. "I don't know how he 11 feel. He hasn't told me."
"Honey. Come on."
Sonja picked up a washrag, and with the tip of her index finger inside the cloth began to scrub along the edge of the sink. "Did Henry ask you to talk to me?"
Phyllis laughed. "You're lucky he didn't ask Morn to intercede on his behalf. She'd probably have you down on the linoleum praying for your soul."
Sonja could never decide which version of the old woman was the more unpleasant, the one who formerly hid her cruelty in drink or the newer version who used the Bible for the same purpose.
"Seriously," said Phyllis, "you have to realize what you're doing when you expose your body to this man. Maybe you think this has to do only with what the eye sees, but it's your name too. Ned Weaver isn't just known as an artist; he has a real reputation up and down the county as a. .. as a. .. Well, I don't want to scald your ears. As a ladies' man. Let's leave it at that."
Sonja rubbed harder at the thin line of grime. It was not dark, like dirt, but close to white, the kind of stain snow or salt would leave, if such a thing were possible.
"He has a wife," Phyllis said. "Did you know that?"
"Have you met her? "
Sonja shook her head.
Phyllis grabbed the dishrag from Sonja's hand. "Could you stop your damn scrubbing for just a minute! I'm trying to talk to you about something important."
Sonja started to reach for her washcloth, then stopped. She crossed her arms and stared wordlessly at her sister-in-law. Her tongue was no match for Phyllis's, but Sonja knew her silence had its own power.
"You know what I'm asking, don't you? Have you had relations with that man?"
"Is that what Henry sent you to find out?"
"I'm the one asking. Let's leave it at that."
"Others have posed for him. Men and women. I'm not the only one."
"But, honey, you're the only one who's married to my brother."
At this note of tenderness in Phyllis's voice, Sonja felt her eyes sting with the start of tears. Before they could spangle her sight and spill over, she found another task for herself. She crossed to the stove to make certain she had turned off the flame under the coffeepot. With her back to her sister-in-law, Sonja could speak again. "He looks at me. He looks and looks, and then he paints or draws what he sees. He doesn't show me the pictures, but I think it isn't me. No. He paints what is in his mind. But that doesn’t matter. I am still myself. For the hour or two or three that I sit or stand or lie before him, I am me, just me. Breathing in and out. My heart beating. That's all. Clothed or naked, it doesn't matter. Just as it doesn't matter what he puts on the paper. It doesn't change that I am . , .myself."
This time the interval of silence stretched on so long Sonja wondered if she had won, although exactly what was at contest she wasn't sure. Finally, Phyllis said, "That sounds wonderful, honey, but don't you see—you're Henry's. You belong to him. How do you think he feels when another man—men—can just stare and stare at you in that way that's supposed to be only his?"
"I belong to him?" She wiped her hands on her apron as if that thought was a physical thing, and she had sullied herself in handling it. "I belong to myself. To me." Sonja didn't care for the way this sounded, but she didn't know any other way to express the idea.
"That sounds fine, but think about it. You're a couple. You need to stand together. Especially after. . . You need to help each other. But what you're doing. . . you're humiliating your husband. When the two of you walk down the street people will laugh at Henry behind his back. If they're not doing it already."
"That's right. Like a joke."
"I know what I've done, and I've done nothing wrong."
Phyllis leaned forward and squinted at Sonja as if a scrim had dropped between them. "Henry wouldn't agree with you on that subject, now, would he?"
"And he is the one to decide?"
"God damn it!" Phyllis threw her hands in the air and spun slowly across the kitchen. "I told Henry he needs to be the one to talk to you on this" She picked up her coffee cup, then just as quickly set it aside. "Look, I'm sure posing for a famous artist is flattering. You don't want to give it up. I understand. But can I just present this to you the way Henry sees it? You're alone with a man. You're naked. And even if there's nothing more to it than that, this man still gets to take in all of your charms for as long as he likes. I mean, does Henry even have that privilege anymore? He wouldn't come right out and say. it, but he made it sound as though things aren't quite what they should be in the bedroom."
"Charms. That's exactly the word Henry used. Tell me, when you and your brother talk about 'my charms,' what part of me are you talking about?" Sonja retrieved the dishrag that Phyllis had tugged from her hand earlier, but now that Sonja had it in her possession once again she had no use for it. She put the cloth back down again, just as Phyllis had done with her coffee cup.
"It's just an expression, honey. You're naked in front of the man. I guess that means he's free to look at any part of you he damn well pleases."
The kitchen was not large, yet it seemed to Sonja that she and Phyllis had reached the point where they could say or do nothing to close the distance between them.
"Come with me. I want to show you something." She led Phyllis out of the kitchen and up the stairs. They walked down the hall to the bathroom, and Sonja then took Phyllis's hand and pulled her in until they both stood in front of the sink, both women's faces framed by the mirror. The day was sunny and the bathroom was bright, but Sonja still turned on the light.
"There you are," Sonja said. "Your pretty pretty face. Your charms.”
At that, Phyllis tried to back away. "Oh, for Christ's sake, Sonja!”
Sonja gripped her sister-in-law's shoulders and held her in front of the mirror, just as Henry had held her. Phyllis's bones felt thin, birdlike, and it occurred to Sonja that perhaps this, Phyllis's delicate underpinning, was what Sonja had always noticed as her sister-in-law's fragility.
"Please," Sonja said. "Stay. I just want you to look, to look as long as you can. Don't dance away or say you must have a cigarette. Look."
A little tension went out of Phyllis's muscles, and Sonja relaxed her grasp but still kept her hands on her sister-in-law's shoulders.
"I don't know what you're trying to prove...."
"Just keep looking."
"I'm not a vain woman, you know. In spite of what you might think, this is not an activity I enjoy.”
"No? Perhaps then you'd like to concentrate on me looking at you. No, don't turn around to do this. In the mirror. Where I am looking at you too."
Phyllis tried to drop her gaze, but Sonja immediately put her hand on Phyllis's chin and lifted it back up.
"How long," Sonja asked, "how long do you think you could look at yourself? How long can you stand to have me look at you? You are not applying makeup. You're not searching for the eyelash caught in your eye. You're just looking"
Phyllis seemed to be cooperating fully now, so Sonja let go of her chin.
"Could you look at yourself for an hour? Two? Three? Of course not. Soon you'd grow tired of the shape of your jaw. Your tiny nose would sicken you. You'd want to turn away because you'd think of nothing but reasons why you're not worthy of such attention. You, a beautiful woman. Now, imagine that there is someone in the world who would look at you hour after hour, day after day. He would look at every inch of you and then look again. Because he thinks you're beautiful? Perhaps. But no matter what—because he believes you're worth looking at. All the world deserves this and you are simply one part of it. Do you know what a gift this is, just to be part of this living world that should be carefully examined? Almost all of us will pass out of this life without ever getting or receiving such attention."
The water in the toilet tank gurgled. The porcelain fixtures gave back as much of the morning light as they could. The warm smells of soap and shaving cream still hung in the air. The towel hanging on the shower curtain rod slowly, slowly gave up its moisture for the next bather.
Finally, in a voice little more than a whisper, Phyllis said, "I envy you."
Sonja leaned forward and pressed her cheek against her sister-in-law's, and as she did, both women's faces fit fully in the mirror's frame. "Should I ask him?" asked Sonja. "Should I ask him if he would like to meet you? To pose for him?"
Phyllis's laughter was as sudden as a cry of pain. "Are you kidding? Russ would kill me!"
The women fell silent again, and though Sonja would never dare say anything out loud, she wondered if they were both thinking the same thing: that no amount of laughter could conceal the fact that Phyllis's remark might be neither joke nor figure of speech.
In the house's other rooms, the hands of clocks swept seconds into the past and nudged minutes in the same direction, yet these two women stared motionlesssly at their reflections. Eventually, Phyllis broke the spell. She stepped out of the frame and gazed at Sonja in the flesh. Then she embraced her brother's wife and whispered in her ear, "You pose for all of us."
Weaver pays attention to every physical detail of Sonja, but never comes to know her. Weaver’s wife is willing to overlook his infidelity because she loves both Ned and his art. Henry may be more attached to his horse, Buck, than to Sonja. In Watson’s skilled hands, all these relationships and issues are explored and presented in Orchard. Enjoy.
Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Orchard.htm
For Reprint Permission, Contact:
& Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth Avenue • Oak Park, IL 60302