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Portrait of Carlotta

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Midge stopped dead on the sidewalk when she saw her, so struck that she only half-noticed when the man walking next to her stepped on her foot. The girl did not see her at all; she was standing outside one of the sidewalk cafes, her head a little bent as she looked down at the cigarette she was holding. Midge’s artist’s eye quickly filled in the details: the brightly-striped café awning, the bright, hard sun falling onto the street, and the girl’s companion, who had his back turned and was talking expressively to the waiter. Whatever he was saying was indecipherable over the sounds of passing cars, but he still looked almost comic next to her. Midge had taken her in at a glance-- the dark hair and bright, inexpensive dress, the almost palpable air of suppressed anxiety that hung around and seemed to cut her off from her date— and was just reflecting, caught up in a sudden wave of voyeur’s embarrassment, that anyway the girl might make the subject for an advertisement, when she realized that the man who was with her was Johnny. She realized it in the instant before he turned around— a scrap of his voice carrying over the traffic, maybe, or a recognition of the way he held his body— and put his arm around the girlfriend, who smiled sweetly as she looked up at him. They walked off down the street linked together in that way. It had taken about a minute to happen, and it had happened only to Midge; neither of them had ever realized that she was there.

Midge thought about it herself for a long while afterward; for a period of days there was not anything else that she could think of that did not connect back to the tragic little scene staged on an incongruously sunny San Francisco street. Eventually she decided to lay everything else aside, and concentrate on a friendly feeling of happiness on John's behalf. Madeleine Elster was dead, John at last out of the hospital, and he had succeeded at last in meeting a nice girl, as Midge had been teasing him to do since their college days.

She thought, in a fit of faux nobility, that she would still like to paint her. But, no, it was not a noble thought: what artist would have been able to resist her? She had such an interesting face for a pretty girl, thought Midge, who had seen her for one minute, across a crowded street. The thought was a reassuring one.

That was where things still stood a week later, when Midge received a call from a hospital worker who said that John Ferguson had been admitted back to the state mental hospital after a profound shock. It took another few hours before someone official was willing to tell Midge what had happened, and that for the second time in a year a woman had fallen from the mission bell tower, and with the same man in attendance.

 

Midge liked being in hospitals. She liked to feel valued. She had been a candy striper at the local hospital when she was in high school, and she was still the only person in her family who made a point to visit her surviving grandmother once a month. The hospital that John was in made Midge want feel as if she were being crushed to death: there was nothing being done there and no hope, only her best friend in the world sitting or lying where he had been put, with a disquieted expression on his face that hurt her to look at.

During the first treatment she had made herself feel heroic by forcing herself to stay there, and remaining cheerful and necessary, and by thinking up little plans to help John every day. This time she felt almost sick with the injustice of it: that this could happen to a good man like John, to have him lose all the ground that he had gained, just when he should have been happy and living, was more than she could take. And the worst thing was the way that it had happened. The horrible coincidence of it had made every paper in California— except that they didn't call it a coincidence, a perspective made possible only by darkly casting doubt on both witness statements, the nun and the girlfriend herself.

Midge had gone to visit her a few times, half out of gratefulness for her testimony, half out of curiosity; the fateful meeting between rivals had not gone quite as she would have imagined it. The girl, whose name was Judy, had broken one of her legs in the fall and was confined to her bed; at some point in the past few weeks she had dyed her hair blonde, and it made her (Midge thought critically) less interesting-looking. She had cried enough to lose her sleek look and air of smothered anxiety; in her conversations with Midge she was deferential and painfully eager to hear any news of John, and all of it, no matter how Midge prettied it for her benefit, made her cry. She was very sad and young; one of the doctors told her that she had refused to have them contact her family, and that it was uncertain as to what would happen during her recuperation. Midge liked sitting by her bedside slightly more than she did John's, but the real benefit was the car rides from one hospital to the other: she put the car windows down, and felt wonderfully blank and rested for drive’s duration.

The only reason Midge heard the latest news was that some of the men from Johnny's old station had been taking it in turns to visit him, and faced with the bleakness of the setting, tended to turn to Midge for a distraction. Midge pitied them their discomfort and was irritated by the pointless talk all at once.

"Pretty bad break, isn't it?" this one asked— this one was called Lerner— almost at the moment when Midge turned back from a phone call.

She answered in the affirmative, and was silently considering the benefits of the new water therapy that one of the newer doctors had suggested while her guest talked until she heard, "And, well, the girl changing her story—"

"What?" Midge asked. Her first thought was that this must be a detail from another case; her second, after catching his meaning look, was that he must be referring to the nun.

"They didn't tell you? Geez, I thought that anyone in the station knew that you were the girl to talk to where the Scot was concerned," Lerner said. He was a nice boy, Midge mechanically reminded herself. "Sure, the girlfriend. Gave us a nice clear story right off the bat, now she says she can't remember. Some shi— thing about traumatic amnesia."

"But the nun—" Midge said, barely registering his words.

"Blind as a bat without her glasses," Lerner said. Midge could see that if he was not precisely enjoying what he was saying, he was enjoying watching the impact of it. "I mean, I don't get it either— you go up a church tower when you can't see the stairs? But a jury wouldn't love it, if you catch my drift. They want the girl to go back on her story or tell a new one. That's the only reason that the hospital's letting her stay there. I guess the nurses all have orders to listen carefully when she talks, and call one of us if the situation warrants."

John continued to sit quietly in his armchair. He had a painful expression on his drawn face, but not one that seemed in any way connected to the conversation's contents. It was the expression of a man trying to work out a mathematical formula.

"I suppose," said Midge, "that it's become very much to John's favor that he was once with the police."

"Sure," Lerner said. "Well, it isn't such a tight case— my friend's on it, he wants to tear his hair out— but people think that it's a little funny, is all. And the family of the girl before this was starting to poke around. What was it, Margaret— no, you're Margaret."

"Madeleine Elster," said Midge and at that moment John suddenly kicked out, almost upsetting the table. Both she and Lerner jumped as if a firecracker had gone off. In an instant, without even realizing it, Midge was on her knees at John's side, trying to calm him. He had an awful look on his face, but after a minute it subsided; he was looking again at the empty space in between the walls of the room as if he had never had a communicable thought in his life.

"That's good, isn't it?" asked Lerner, from the opposite side of the room. "That he's starting to move, I mean. Hey, maybe he was listening to us. He could clear up a few things."

Midge still had her hand on John's face. "Yes, I'm sure it's good," she said, feeling instinctively that it was in fact the opposite, and just an hour later she had gone over to Judy's hospital bed and offered her a place to stay after her release, free of charge and for as long as she liked.

 

She did feel guilty about it. By the time that Judy Barton agreed to her offer, Midge felt something like an undercover agent— except that instead of working to catch a serial killer or something else similarly high-minded, she was only trying to put one over on a young, vulnerable girl. (Midge had never asked Judy's age, but she did come across as younger.) She comforted herself with the thought that despite her ulterior motives— which Judy must have suspected— she was in any case doing her a service.

What she settled on eventually for a defense was that any affection she felt for Judy was on Johnny’s behalf, and it was for his sake that she would betray it. Midge was almost overprotective of him at the best and most idyllic of times; now she thought that she heard wolves at the door, and it was all up to her to fight them off. She could not imagine why Judy had taken back her story— in fact, she tried to think about it at little as possible, it made so little sense to her— but she could not think that there was enough of a reason that she couldn’t be talked out of it. There were enough people already taking advantage of Johnny’s bad luck.

The press had indeed picked up the story, using a particularly lurid slant that Midge suspected that they must have been getting from the local DA. Just walking into the hospital, Midge had spotted a newspaper, hastily hidden by one of the younger nurses, with John's alleged crimes jostling for headline space with a sentimental article about Barbara Graham. Calls and visits had almost entirely faded off, with a few exceptions: Lerner and the men at John's old precinct, and Gavin Elster, who called solicitously every few days. Midge told herself resolute homilies on the fickleness and short memory of the public, and was frightened almost to death.

It was the question of what reason Judy could possibly have had for producing uncertainty which confused Midge. In fact she tried to think about this as little as possible. Since no valid explanation seemed to fit in with what Midge knew about the case and Judy's character, Midge decided that the hidden aspect must lie in Judy's personality. Her view of Judy was already a bifurcated one, split between the sad girl in the hospital and the mysterious one glimpsed from across a busy midday street. Unconsciously she gave more credence to the barely seen one, not only because Midge had known her first or because she was a secret and thus more consequential than the face that Midge showed regularly to the world, but because Midge had liked her more. Why she avoided mentioning to Judy that she had seen her even before the accident Midge didn’t know at all, except that she felt obscurely embarrassed about it.

 

The first thing that Judy said once inside Midge's apartment was, "Oh, what a lovely place!" Midge replied with a smile, slightly absent-mindedly. She was wondering how best to bring up the matter of Judy’s story. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, and others of the type, that it was a slight shock for her to realize that she had essentially no idea what she and her new guest would do together for the next few weeks.

Possibly the same question occurred to Judy, who excused herself after a few minutes of small talk. The trip from the hospital was taxing: she asked sweetly and apologetically whether she might lie down on the couch, and was asleep in a few minutes. Midge was encouraged by this, not only by the short duration of time that had been spent actually interacting with the woman who had perhaps destroyed a friend's life in a fit of romantic pique, but because the physical aspects of Judy’s care— that of carrying and support— had been less difficult than she imagined them being; it had been a very long time since her days as a candy striper. Judy might have been faking sleep out of politeness, which would have made her the most tactful woman alive.

It was a bad night. Midge spent it occupied by worrying. First she obsessed over her ability to care for Judy, imagining her guest crying and not knowing whether to go to her or to keep a respectful distance. Then, ridiculously, she turned her mind to the apartment. Perhaps it was too much of an artist’s self-conscious mess, Midge told herself, and then, with the force of real surprise: but I like my apartment. She did; she had never been embarrassed over it in her life. The only part of it that she really would have been ashamed to have someone see was the ridiculous self-portrait as Carlotta Valdez, pushed safely to the back of her bedroom closet.

 

The next morning Midge woke up only a few minutes before her guest, and for breakfast the two of them sat in the front room looking at the view as they ate slightly stale buns. Midge had woken feeling oddly peaceful in her mood, despite her lack of real rest. Judy seemed similarly more settled; when she glanced around she seemed as bright and interested in anything in front of her as a bird. For the first time she really seemed to be Midge’s mystery girl.

The question in Midge’s mind was how to raise the matter of testimony with Judy subtly, so that she didn't feel trapped and lash out. However, Judy ably and unintentionally distracted her through the clever ploy of asking about the art on the walls surrounding them. Whether she was really interested or just preventing an awkward silence, Midge couldn’t tell, and didn’t quite care. She could not have thought of a more pleasant way to pass the morning. It had been a long time since she had been really distracted from Johnny’s situation. It was pleasant to talk to Judy, too, not only for her own sake, but because Midge was always trying to look under it: there must be something hidden, something that made her half-tense and half-ingratiating. To Midge it felt like having a conversation with a shadow puppet.

"I knew that you were an artist," Judy told her seriously, "but I didn't really know it, until I saw your rooms."

She said everything very directly— looking straight into the eyes of the person she was speaking to— but with an almost hopeful tint to her words, as if she wanted her conversational partner to like what she said but didn’t expect it. “It’s so good to have someone to talk to,” she had said twice since the conversation opened, sounding unusually grateful for it.

"Maybe it was the room that made me into an artist," Midge told her now, a little charmed despite herself. "I brought the paints and the canvases, but have you seen the view?" I also brought the contacts in advertising, she thought to herself ruefully, but it was too fine a day to be self-deprecating.

Judy laughed and turned her head with interest, making a performance of it. As she looked away and to the window, Midge felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of recognition, so strongly that at first she could not identify the source. From a past life, she thought blankly, and then she knew: from every regional and national newspaper that was sold in San Francisco, less than a year ago, and it would make sense for them to begin reprinting that particular photograph, given Johnny’s current circumstances.

Midge, endeavoring to keep her voice as natural as she could, said "Oh— the paper should be here.” It was the first excuse that came to her head, and it made her wince. Judy looked back from the window and nodded at her, bright-eyed as she took a sip of her coffee. Midge fled the building as quickly as she could. Once outside she leaned against the side of the building, looking blankly ahead of her.

It was not that Judy looked so much like Mrs. Elster— they were about as much alike as any two pretty women with regular features would. Midge had never seen the dead woman, excepting a flash of her hair seen as she drove away. She had seen the profile picture of her, back when she read the papers: neutral in expression, perhaps a little smug (Midge had known even then that she was being uncharitable), and posed like an old-fashioned broach. The pose brought out their similarities; so did their hair color. And Midge knew, with a sickening certainty, that Judy had dyed her hair only recently.

A car honked on the street in front of her; one of the Carsons, from the house down the street from her, emerged ready to start an argument. Something had happened while she had been dreaming. Maybe that was Johnny's position, Midge thought: not sick in the head, just too tied up in his own memories to think of anything around him. Anyway, she had at least gotten as far as figuring out Judy’s motivation, Midge thought queasily. That must have been it.

As if Judy had sensed the tilt of her thoughts, she said as Midge came in: "I wonder why I never called him Johnny. I always think of him as being Scottie."

Something in the air of the room had shifted. It no longer had the air of a party: Judy looked pale and less happy than she had been when Midge had left. No paper yet, Midge was prepared to say, if Judy happened to ask about it.

"Well, John was always —" A name for his friends, Midge had been about to say. Scottie had been the label more generally distributed for acquaintances. She bit her lip.

"I know that," Judy said sharply. "He gave me the whole speech when I met him. I knew him, too, you know.”

"I did know him for a while, though," said Midge slowly. "I think I was the only one who knew him by Johnny. I don't know how that started-- I called him Johnny or Johnny-o, and he called me Midge, ever since we were at college together." That had been right after the war— John attending by the charity of President Truman, Midge by that of her father. "I don't know that anyone other than my mother ever called me Midge."

There was a twist to Judy's mouth as she listened to her. At the end of Midge's musing, repetitive little speech, she said: "He never mentioned you, you know. I never had any idea that you existed, until the hospital."

Midge had imagined that she would like Judy better when she had gotten over her excessive carefulness and begun to reveal what she really thought. She didn't, as it turned out, but she also thought that she knew her well enough to know when she was being combative instead of cruel; she looked at Judy evenly, not even tempted to snap back as she knew that Judy probably wanted her to, and within a minute Judy's face had crumpled. "I'm sorry," she said, her face muffled in her hands.

Midge got up and crossed the room and put her arms around her. Judy clung to her, pushing her wet face into Midge's neck. She was sobbing with an intensity that Midge thought could not be possibly the result of a contrived argument with her hostess. "That was a horrible thing to say," Judy said shakily after a moment.

And that's why you said it, didn't you? Midge thought. Aloud she said: "It's all right-- it's hard to alienate me." The words weren't important; the tone was, and that she was stroking the side of Judy's back to calm her. She tried to make her voice seem as firm and motherly as if it had been Johnny in front of her, instead of his wronged girlfriend.

Finally Judy pulled away. "I'm sorry, Margaret," she said, her voice still trembling. She rubbed fretfully at her damp face. Midge stood up and went to the kitchen area, intending to wet some hand towels and to get a little space for herself.

She wanted to be as generous to Judy as she could, but there was an itching under her skin. The two of them were too close, Midge thought: in proximity, in situation... Her brief time outside hadn't been enough. She would have to leave the apartment again, to adjust to her new realization of Judy as being a person, one as worthy of having her cause championed as Johnny was.

"I have to go out for a while," Midge said, putting the towels under the faucet. "I'll try to be back soon— and I'll put together some things for you to do while I'm out. There's a radio somewhere in my room."

Judy, twisting her neck back, said, "Are you going to see Scottie? Will you tell him that— well, that I asked for him?" It was the same thing that she had said back in the hospital, every time that Midge had left her room.

"Yes, of course," Midge said, thinking, poor girl, poor girl. She went over and knelt next to the wheelchair, holding the towels; instinctively she bent over and kissed Judy's forehead. Judy tilted her head up to smile at her, not seeming to feel that the gesture was in any way unusual; Midge, confused by her own embarrassment, quickly stood up and left the room. In her own cluttered bedroom she spun around, trying to think of what Judy would like to occupy herself with. The little radio, which Midge had given up on finding months ago, was located with surprising painlessness in one of the dustier corners under her bed. And there were stacks of popular records in the front room, if Judy wanted the phonograph. For books she finally gave up— most of hers were antiques, or unwieldy ones about art history. John Buchan, du Maurier— it doesn’t matter, Midge thought, flipping through the few light paperbacks in the room. I just need to get out.

After a minute she also put a tin of colored pencils atop the pile, with a stack of paper. It wasn't an impressive collection, but it was hard to carry; the records especially threatened to slip out of her arms as she walked.

Back in the front room, Judy was carefully pressing at her face with the towels. She looked better, Midge thought critically. Not only better than when she had been crying, but better than before, too: the tears had brought some color to her cheeks.

"Here," Midge said. "I don't know if you'll like any of this— but I won't be gone long, anyway. You can draw if you like. I hear that this apartment has that effect on tenants."

Judy took everything that she dropped onto the side table and looked at them critically, one by one. She held onto the pencil box for an especially long time, looking at it as if it were a beautiful book that had been written in Sanskrit. When the inspection was over she looked up and said, again in her wanting-to-be-liked voice: “I haven’t been a very good guest, and you’ve been lovely. Thank you, Margaret.”

"And I'm sorry that I don't have a television," said Midge. "And— call me Midge, if you like."

Judy smiled and assented, her expression making it clear that she didn't quite understand the meaning of what Midge was telling her. Midge was happy with that. She said goodbye, peace restored to the household, but the events of the past hour pressed down on her more and more heavily as she walked to her car. Her whole life, and John's, and Judy's, pressed down on her chokingly, and after she got into the car she drove only as far as a nearby parking lot, one that she knew that very few people would be in at this hour. After she parked, she moved only enough to put her head in her arms.

"Oh, Johnny, Johnny," she said.

 

She didn’t visit him that day: she couldn't have borne it. She sat in the parking lot until she was almost sick from the little circles that her mind insisted on following over and over, and then she drove around for an hour, taking familiar routes that seemed unidentifiably strange. That was how she found her way driving back to her house, when her own preference would have been to keep driving, and driving, possibly until she reached Connecticut. When she walked in the door, Judy presented her proudly with a picture, taking up three sheets of paper, which depicted Noah's arc and most of the animals. Midge, feeling that she had been shocked back into her own body, praised it extravagantly, while Judy shook her head with vigor. "I just wanted to ask you for help fixing it," she said, although she looked at the sketch with an expression of increased pride. "Now I know that you must be a magician."

"Oh, it's easy," Midge said— and could have bitten her own tongue. Judy, luckily, decided to laughingly challenge her instead of being offended, and that was the game that they played for the rest of the night: Judy would point to herself, or the phonograph, or one of the half-empty bottles, say imperiously, "Draw that," and Midge would have to do so to Judy's exacting standards. Judy, as it turned out, did not have much patience for anything other than stark realism— although she laughed any time Midge passed her a quick scribble and pronounced it one of the armchairs, or whatever it was. She never asked how Johnny was, although Midge had prepared what she was going to say and felt her deceit lying on her heavily all through the fun, and then afterwards, while she lay sleepless in her bed and heard Judy shift just as restlessly out in the front room.

 

The next few days passed very pleasantly and uneasily. Nothing that was particularly out of the ordinary happened, except that Midge and her new roommate continued to get along far better than Midge, for one, had ever anticipated. Midge found that with great concentration she could reduce the world around her; the area outside of her home came to seem a place to glimpse out the window, and to briefly visit while going to the supermarket for milk. She resolutely did not think about Johnny, alone in his bare room, or the investigation into him, or the effect that Judy's withdrawn story was having on his life. She did not think about it, because she did not want to: she could sense, without understanding the source of it, that somehow Judy and Johnny were permanently parted in their stories, and that the divergence would require her to make some kind of choice. She did not want to consider this, because the choice had already been made, years ago, when Johnny had signed up for an art history course on the assumption that it would be easy enough for him to pass without requiring copious explanations from his seatmate, who luckily had been happy to give them.

It made Midge sorry to think about. She liked Judy now, to an extent that surprised her, taking into consideration the shortness of their acquaintance, as well as its oddness. She had— she could remember this now— been interested in Judy even in the brief moments before she had known that John was.

How Judy felt-- whether she was uneasy or concerned— was a mystery to Midge; both of them made a concerted effort to be cheerful with each other, Judy bright-eyed and verging on pert, Midge constantly acquiescent and smiling. She could tell that Judy sometimes cried, when they were in different rooms, and often enough she saw her gazing blankly out the window into her own thoughts. At first Midge tried to break up the heavy mood into something more cheerful, but as the days went by they more often sat together in comfortable, quiet melancholy.

Most of the time Judy was restless rather than sad or thoughtful. She didn’t like reading, thought that the radio programs were stupid, and had to do something else while she listened to music. The pad of paper proved a hit— as did, unexpectedly, crossword puzzles— but Midge still had to stop joking defensively about buying a television set by the second day, because it had come up enough times to be already stale.

The problem with Judy was not that she was bored, it was that she was tense. The tension made it hard for her to distract herself and created the boredom. I should ask her about it, it would be a kindness, Midge often thought to herself, and with relief pushed the idea away for another five minutes of painting. She spent a lot of time thinking about Judy’s boredom, and her unease, and Judy in general. Every few minutes Judy would look up from the current crossword puzzle and accidently catch her eye. The last time, Midge would think to herself in embarrassment whenever it happened, but it never quite was.

Really, Midge felt almost lucky to be so swamped with work. She had put off her current commission for weeks, and she had been able to sense the gradual fraying of her employer’s generosity by the day: now that her visits to Johnny were temporarily curtailed (she could sense, half-hysterically and half-accurately, that to be more aware of John's position would somehow almost mystically break up the new understanding with Judy) it was an easy enough way to bury herself in the sand. The employer for the duration, luckily, was a very established brand of hand soap: they paid well, and Midge thought that it was less off-putting to a new acquaintance than the brassieres would have been.

The model for the advertisement was a problem. Midge had a few snapshots of her tacked to the wall near the easel: slim, dark-haired, a sweetly contemplative expression, and altogether ready to be rendered tastefully covered by a cloud of iridescent bubbles. The face insisted on going wrong: Midge could not get one of her drawings to resemble the model for her life, and finally she admitted defeat and began the draft process body-first. The face that her hands insisted on forming was a good one—one that would have pleased her long-suffering employers very much, in fact— except that Midge dreaded having it seen by her guest. There must have been an easy, flattering way to ask Judy’s permission, and Midge must have practiced it silently twenty times that day, but somehow she was never able to say it: there was a lot of not saying anything those few days in the otherwise convivial air of the apartment.

Finally she decided to walk a path of mild subterfuge, for the sake of her continued employment. What she would was to try to complete as much as she could of most of the painting for the rest of the day— a task necessitating the largest and most unrealistic bubbles that she could possibly create— and then, when Judy was out of the house the next day for her physical therapy appointment, Midge would try to get as much of Judy’s portrait out of her own system as possible. It was necessary for Judy to be absent, because for the life of her Midge could not think of her as being blonde.

This plan of action cheered her up enough that she actually went to visit Johnny, for the first time after a gap of days. Her good humor was dampened a little by Judy's muted reaction. "Of course I'll tell him," Midge said in response to her question automatically, and went out to the car a little troubled.

The gap of not many days had rendered the hospital oddly strange to her; she had to take a deep breath of air at the door (free air, she thought melodramatically) before she could bear to take the last step. Inside, the staff all asked sympathetically whether she had been ill for the past few days.

The visit lasted for about an hour, which was short for one of Midge’s visits but not unusually so. She was watching the clock. There were people coming in and out, it seemed, every minute, which cut down severely on what Midge could say to him. Not that she knew what she wanted to say in the first place: on the drive over she had decided to try and drop Madeleine Elster’s name casually as part of her customary monologue, to see whether Johnny reacted to it as he had before. Once there she could not quite bring herself to carry it out. She found that she already knew what he would react to. It seemed cruel, and since she could not quite think of what to say to him, they sat for most of the hour together in a semi-comfortable silence. “Sooner or later I’ll be put in here with you,” Midge told him confidingly, but if he was upset by the thought he gave no outward sign.

 

The portrait of Judy, Midge had decided, must be a good one: partially because she felt that Judy’s face was owed a good portrait, and partially because she was now very invested in the idea. All through the previous day, while doing her real work, she had traced over the portrait’s lines with her mind, until she thought that she had it memorized.

To be a really good and impressive portrait, she would require a canvas, the large and impressive kind that hung in museums. Canvases of that scale did not come particularly cheaply— not, anyway, in comparison to the money that she made— so that it was lucky that she already had one lying around, only slightly used: the self portrait that Johnny had so decisively rejected almost a year ago. The idea of painting it over was a cheering one: the symmetry of it, where she painted it over with the woman who Johnny had ended up seeing as a suitable substitute for Carlotta, was an intellectually pleasing one.

Midge had anticipated the painting being easy, but she was almost surprised by how quickly and simply the image came to her mind and then onto the canvas, almost exactly as she had wanted it. The picture was not quite of Judy: it was the unknown girl on the other side of the street, with her wary, flattened attitude and odd curls around her forehead. Midge knew as she painted that she had never really met her subject, the one she found so interesting, although she was sure of her existence. A little of Judy made its way into the picture, too, if only for the contrast, and because Midge did not know how to disentangle the two in her mind.

Painting for Midge was always a creative thing. She didn’t like working from live, present models, and when she used pictures her painting usually turned out to have little more than a passing resemblance. For her painting was satisfying because it meant recreating how what she saw was remembered, in a way that insisted on what she found interesting and helped her explain it. For this reason art, especially creative art done without a contract, was the most satisfying and absorbing part of her life. When the mail was delivered she did not get up, when she was hungry she did not pay any attention, and when the phone rang, halfway through the morning, she did not deign to notice. When it rang for a second and third time she got up in a bad humor, ready to make mincemeat out of whoever it was: it turned out to be the hospital where Judy had gone for her physical therapy; Judy Barton, the calm secretarial voice said, had been followed to her appointment by an unknown man, who had been trying to talk to her. She seemed to be very upset. Would it be convenient for her to be picked up by car?

 

Midge, having rushed quickly to the hospital with barely enough time to put her shoes on, was inclined to be very sympathetic. Judy, by the time she showed up, was skittish and bad-tempered, and insisted upon leaving even before the police had arrived; when Midge asked her questions about the experience, she looked tense and obstinately said nothing. Midge was almost out of patience with her when she asked, pulling out of the hospital’s parking lot, whether she had been able to identify who the man was. She did not expect an answer; even if she received one, she had already assumed that the culprit would be some ghoulish tabloid reader. She entirely did not expect Judy to say unhesitatingly, "It was Gavin Elster," before refusing to speak for the rest of the ride.

After giving up on Judy giving out any more information. Midge was left with her own astonishment. The whole thing, she decided finally, must have been a misunderstanding: Gavin Elster, wanting more information on his wife’s death, had gone to the closest witness, and unintentionally crossed a line in his grief; Judy, already nervous and high-strung, had quickly become terrified in response.

It was only after recasting the situation to her own comfort that Midge realized that she didn't know how Judy had known Gavin Elster well enough to identify him in the first place. This was the part that she found unsettling. She could not quite imagine how the meeting had happened. Elster had faded into the background of his wife's case; his photograph had rarely appeared in the papers, compared to hers or Judy's or Johnny's. Or Johnny had introduced the two of them, a possibility that Midge's mind immediately rejected as grotesque.

Once at the house, Judy immediately began to get out of the car. She had been able to limp around on crutches for a few days, but mostly did not: it was so cumbersome, and she needed assistance most of the time, anyway. This time it seemed to be a symptom of her temper. She walked so briskly that Midge, with the house key in hand, almost had to run for the door in order to make it there ahead of her. Midge let her walk ahead again once inside the house. Judy went out to the living room where her couch was, while Midge idled near the door, taking a pleasant moment to breathe and relax until it occurred to her that she had not put away the portrait.

The first thing that Judy said, when Midge went though the door, was “Did you go through my wallet. Her back was to Midge. She had positioned herself, Midge saw with dread, squarely in front of the portrait.

“What?” Midge said weakly.

“For the hair,” Judy said, turning around. She had an angry expression on her face. “How else could you have known…”

She trailed off while Midge wondered what she would say in reply. The portrait was not polished; Midge had left the house halfway through a brushstroke. Some of it was only blocked off, other parts had errors which would have been easy to fix with a minute to spare. Midge could detect a trace of the previous painting under the new coat of white paint. But to her eyes there was something good about it, something natural and unposed. She was not surprised that Judy turned to look back at it once she realized that she had nothing to say.

Finally, Judy said softly, “Is that what I look like? It’s my portrait, isn’t it.”

Midge slowly nodded. Judy, unexpectedly, lurched forward; Midge had automatically stepped forward to catch before realizing that that was what Judy had intended. “Thank you,” Judy said, clutching around Midge’s shoulders. Midge, hanging onto her equally tightly, felt bewildered and overwhelmed, but pleased. Through the window she could see a car drive up and park in her driveway; the driver, clear even through the dark glass of the car’s window, was Gavin Elster. Midge said, helplessly, “Look”; the window faced Judy’s back. Judy turned at the exact moment that Elster left his car and began immediately to scream. The scream was hopeless and overwhelming, as though Elster had been holding a knife.

Midge, acting too quickly for thought, dragged Judy still helplessly screaming to the couch; after a second’s consideration of what to do when Elster came to the door, she put the blanket over Judy’s head. Then she went to the telephone and called the police, making the call so briskly and efficient that part of her was astonished by herself.

By that time Judy had stopped screaming. Midge went to sit next to her on the couch as the sound of Gavin Elster’s knocking filled the house. At first Midge thought that they could wait him out, that he would go if he didn’t have a response; by the end of five minutes she had been infected by Judy’s panic. It annoyed her. In the next moment, she had gotten up, gone to the door, and yanked it open.

“Mr. Elster, I need you to leave,” she said as politely as any homeowner. “You’re beginning to make yourself a nuisance.”

Gavin Elster— who Midge had known distantly for years, and thought of vaguely but positively as one of Johnny’s friends— paid her as much attention as would have if she had been one of the birds that usually rested where he stood. Instead he backed up a few feet, put his hands in a bullhorn shape over his mouth, and began shouting: “Madeleine! Madeleine!”

Midge slammed the door in his face. As she locked it, it occurred to her that Madeleine Elster had been a kind of Typhoid Mary; she had communicated insanity to at least two of her lovers. And me next, Midge thought grimly, slamming the latch.

Luckily for what sanity remained to her, a police car pulled up not long later. Elster left quickly enough when he saw it, suggesting that he had a little understanding of the consequences of his actions still remaining with him. The officer— who Midge thought might actually have been Lerner; it was so hard to distinguish between any two of them— insisted on coming inside to take a statement. By the time he did so Judy had locked herself into the bathroom and was refusing to respond to anyone. Midge felt a lot of sympathy for her, especially since Lerner immediately began talking about her case at the top of his lungs.

There was a lot of departmental gossip for him to pass on, and few facts, but the facts that he did mix in almost by accident Midge couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. The part that she found most interesting was that Madeleine Elster’s family had come into town and had been meeting with various people. “Well, it’s suspicious,” Lerner said genially when she asked him to expand on it. “One girl breaks her neck so neat that it’s like something done with a rope, and another breaks her leg and starts walking a week later?” Midge made an agreeing noise, hoping that Judy couldn’t hear. “Would sure like to get a statement,” Lerner went on wistfully.

He had to be satisfied with the last cup of coffee in the house; it took fifteen minutes and a radio for backup before Midge could get rid of him. The whole time she was thinking about Judy. They were going to have to talk about this, Midge thought, more with resignation than with excitement.

Judy must have had similar thoughts; by the time Midge turned back from the closed door, Judy had left the bathroom and was leaning against the frame of the doorway. Silently Midge went to support her back to the couch.

They sat together, silent and half-facing each other. When Judy caught her eye Midge was prepared for something: an explanation, or a plea for help. She was not prepared for Judy to lean forward and kiss her. It was a brisk, quick kiss, and Judy leaned back after only a moment. Midge was so surprised that she felt something like the effects of frostbite in her hands, and down her back.

“I’ll get you a glass of water,” she said blankly, when she could speak, and then stood up and fled to the kitchen. The glass seemed to fill up surprisingly quickly. She needs something from me, Midge thought, without knowing how she knew it.

Judy smiled briefly and perfunctorily in thanks upon receiving the water. After taking it she looked at it with great concentration, but made no move towards drinking. At last she said, with the old tentative tone: “Have you ever done something really awful?”

Midge at first felt a bolt of shame, as if Judy had looked into her soul. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, and felt that it was a true answer.

Judy nodded as if she had never expected anything else. “I have,” she said, in a curiously uninflected tone. The testimony, Midge thought with relief; it would be all right now, and she had never even have to raise the subject herself.

“I don’t think that you have anything to be afraid of,” Midge told her. “Just resubmit the statement. The police are desperate for it, anyway.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Judy helplessly; Midge, caught up in the tide of her own emotion, got off the couch to hold onto Judy’s hands, trying to convey a little of her sense of

“It’ll be all right,” she said. “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.”

She looked at Judy, her whole heart in her chest; at that moment there was nothing she would not have done for Judy, if she had needed it, and when Judy met her eyes and then leaned forwards and kissed her Midge kissed her back, hot with her own need to reassure Judy of her loyalty. It seemed to be the closest they could get to each other. Neither of them let go of the other’s hands.

After a minute Judy pulled away far enough to rest her forehead on the side of Midge’s face; she was breathing so deeply that she was actually trembling a little, her breaths coming in like sobs. When she pulled back far enough that they could look at each other her face was still unhappy.

We can fix it, Midge thought exultantly. It’s all right now, I can make it all right for both of them. She smiled at Judy, bright with her own certainty that did not dim when faced with Judy’s dread.

Judy gripped her hands tightly and closed her eyes, as if in anticipation of a hard fall; Midge thought, for a moment, that it would be all right, in the long moment before Judy finally told her.

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, 2/14/1959
… surprising acquittal, in contrast to her co-conspirator, has been widely attributed to the strong character witness provided by Miss Margaret Wood, an artist and acquaintance of Miss Barton, who provided a stirring defense of her friend to the clear irritation of the state’s lawyer, who had nominally called her up. The belief that Miss Wood’s viewpoint would be a boon to the prosecution was built on the friendship between herself and Ferguson; however, in an intriguing interview given after the court let out, Miss Wood made it clear that she was close friends with Miss Barton, and intended to take her in after her acquittal. “Judy and I know each other very well,” said Miss Barton, who avoided the subject of said friend’s guilt or innocence. “In fact, I am in fullest agreement that [CONTINUED ON PAGE 17]