The Ménage of the Modigliani Girl

We never called Anne the Modigliani Girl or even “Shadow,” her stripper alias, to her face. Klanger and I should’ve. She might’ve gotten a kick out of it.

Was it presumptuous of us to suspect that a woman who peeled her clothes for a living (as well as “worked on the side”) wouldn’t have known an artist of his renown? Indeed, wonder if the joke would’ve been on us? If so, that certainly should’ve flipped all kinds of assumptions, no?

Wonder if not only was she familiar with Modigliani, but she already gathered how learned people saw similarities between his art and herself?

In hindsight it’s one of those perfect ideas that struck long after the fact. Like the withering riposte to an otherwise crippling insult.

Because of her profession, really, weren’t we free to make easy assumptions? Only after she’d shared intimacies with us did Klanger and I begin knowing her somewhat.

For starters she didn’t enter the business under the common circumstances.

The father of Anne’s children hadn’t seduced her and abandoned them. Lack of marketable skills wasn’t the reason behind what some would see as unsavory moneymaking. The ready lure of plentiful narcotics didn’t compel her to strike devilish, soul-stealing bargains.

She kept details about her “husband” vague. Klanger and I differed about whether they were even married. She never wore a ring yet never dissuaded any suggestions they existed in a legally bound state.

The couple and their children started out in Los Angeles then migrated to Las Vegas. Here, he successfully found employment as a chef in a Strip property, one of the swank ones. His salary alone ought have been plenty to support the whole family. It was. Yet she removed herself and their children into a modest domicile.

What sort of woman rejected such security? The most of us leading quiet cautious conventional lives would look askance at a mother who chucked financial stability and the material comforts it provided.

While the new address wasn’t Castle Rackrent, the home she’d forsaken had those contemporary architectural features the Las Vegas newspaper real estate supplement loved hyping. The home referenced Frank Lloyd Wright and Bauhaus. Desert landscaping surrounding the structure mitigated the property’s in-ground pool.

Naturally during the summers when the Mojave clamped its torrid nature upon wherever mankind existed in Las Vegas, their children became otters those three days they spent with daddy. His industry job gave him off the week’s three nonessential days, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. These he used to hone being a parent. Anne lauded his parenting.

Hadn’t she mentioned the man who sired her children either Japanese or of Japanese descent? Never a mention, though, concerning his feelings towards their new distance or her endeavors those evenings he minded their children.

Heard the wrong way it could’ve been condescending, but Klanger praised Anne’s home management. It was a funny compliment but having been in her nest I understood unquestioningly.

If one looked down on Anne because of her profession, then naturally one assumed her address close to a hovel, verging on vermin infestation, an odor of negligence greeting visitors at the door. Happy to report she belied the stereotype.

Her home was cleaner than a hound’s tooth. Despite having young children, she kept it orderly. Strangers didn’t run the risk of stepping on or tripping over toys. Despite being a smoker, and here was what I regarded her most impressive achievement, the air inside wasn’t tainted with acrid cigarette smoke.

Who among us have visited the homes of “decent” people who couldn’t have made the same cut?

There was one kindness I extended her that wasn’t transactional. If the reader is a certain age, he or she will understand. Anne drove a VW Microbus. The sort the mind’s eye can imagine clogging roads into Yasgur’s Farm.

Instead of an exterior smeared with Peter Max pop art, Anne’s white roof stretched above a faded pink body. The rattle of that relic’s motor brought back adolescent camping memories. Young campers on one side of the Hudson while Woodstock occurred across the river; but a month earlier men reaffirmed mankind’s insignificance by landing on the moon. Yes, an eventful summer.

Incredible that nobody invented an ode to the VW Microbus akin to the Chevy Van … but that’s all right with me.
Anyway, by the time we met Anne’s vehicle had lost its counterculture polish and edged into a hoopty fugue. Not only was she part-swapping, but the side door hatch was broken. African technology via a rope tenuously fastened the hatch handle to the door post.

While no way she could’ve connived or cajoled me into donating for an alternator or oil pump, that door needed fixing. Who knew how capably she tied knots? One severe enough scoot-over-baby turn, the hatch pops open, and her children tumble onto a Nevada highway.

My expense was small. Her gratitude was enormous. For I had noticed.

Looking back, Anne was the one “subject” I regret not asking intentional squirm-inducing questions. Maybe she would’ve been a trouper. One who answered honestly despite any pain inflicted. Rather, I endured my own agonies.
Returning to her ambiguous situation – were they or were they not wed? Subterfuge permitted me the sort of flimsy cover for possibly bad behavior endemic here.

When in Rome …

A hard and fast rule until Las Vegas – never knowingly bed straying wives. Especially in Nevada where locals seemingly host gun shows biweekly. Thanks to the state’s open carry laws, the silliest provocation can escalate into gunplay.

If I still resided in the East, the revamping of her life would’ve cocked an eyebrow if not be glared upon with altogether disfavor. But this is the West.

By old standards multitudes of Nevada residents have made godawful decisions then compounded these like there’s no tomorrow. Some people call that “freedom.”

Those paths have been blazed by irresponsible individuals wholly accountable for their own outcomes. Few ask the failures to reflect on the processes which degraded their lives. It’s immaterial. A weak handshake, maybe, followed by some platitude of rote condolence, and that’s about it before turning backs on them.

No bad word about her children’s father ever passed Anne’s generous lips. At least not with Klanger or me in audience. Then again neither did she ever volunteer reasons why behind the separation. Perhaps she saved those conversations for men with whom she indulged deeper intimacies.

Klanger opined she likely saw us as jumped-up fuck-buddies. Now wouldn’t that have been a post-coital question to pose? And where would “jumped-up fuck-buddies” have sat on the carnal relations scale?

Above booty call, I hope.

Before entering the feast or famine stripping business, Anne had clerked at one of the Strip’s high-street boutiques. Being a man, I might’ve thought she would’ve been a natural. She should have stood out from all her vanilla-chick co-workers/competitors. Her accent alone perked ears. Admittedly several years older and more mature than the intentionally highly sexualized women who also sold pricey labels to the too-much moneyed, along with themselves to the right customers, Anne’s allure was innate and unforced.

Small bosom where others projected pneumatically, and trailing a puny backside when the day’s cabooses dictated domesticated versions of the Hottentot Venus’, Anne might’ve have been among the few floor staff who didn’t present a forced sexuality. Amid that group, her naturally dark complexion amidst pale skins and flesh artificially tanned, only a committed cliché of a horn dog could’ve missed Anne’s languid sensuality.

While the others were too busy shoving goodies in faces, she displayed hers and let these lure the perceptive.
Where the others offered too much in too tight and too short and after a fashion might come across as too ridiculous rather than the too fabulous symbols towards which they strove, Anne, simply decorated. Her uniform consisted of blouse and pencil skirt that complemented her figure rather than hyper-sexualizing outfits. Through facile eyes she might’ve seemed simple. Her one concession, the one we adults laughed at, black stilettoes from which seamed midnight stockings rose.

And no, her shoe soles weren’t red. Those Lucite platforms she wore while at Rick Blaine’s Place then seemed reasonable.

Had Anne been a contemporary of her co-workers the relatively low wages earned for the arduousness exacted might’ve made proximity to aspirational celebrity and glamor tolerable. But in the end she decided she wasn’t that shallow. Yet Anne confessed plying her mercantile skills at any lesser retailor would’ve offended her self-standing.

That stated, maybe Anne was more surface than we thought – though at a more substantial level of superficiality. (No. That line wasn’t appropriated from a Woody Allen movie.) Nonetheless, having pondered it aloud in bed and there contrary to any signs that she might’ve taken herself seriously to being humorless, Anne laughed. Of course she denied the accusation. And she did it without becoming defensive, besides.

Proximity alone kept me in closer touch with our Modigliani Girl. A metal sculptor, Klanger landed in a creative trench which proved quite commercial. In the intervening years those rare times he visited North America, he bypassed Las Vegas to confer and seal deals with possible into committed Midwestern customers, his base.

For what seemed too short a time, I was able to absorb the fees for Anne’s favors with odd regularity. When gainful employment rather than the fitful hours of situational labor landed me steady scheduled work, we pulled apart.

Amazing how a job’s demands focused the mind. Anne wasn’t a childish thing I put aside. Steady employment meant I no longer needed distraction.

During one of the last instances we chatted plainly, Anne laid out the bones of a scheme. The potential pleased her. If she could pull it off, she’d be in that too short sweet spot of having everything she wanted just the way she wanted.

Of course she met a man. In Rick Blaine’s Place naturally.

Ghostly as he tried preserving his identity, thorough web searches revealed him to be one of those financiers our Treasury Department occasionally sought. Innuendo and direct rumor insisted he sailed around the Caribe on a vessel whose silhouette reminded of a particularly sharp blade.

Funny how all sorts fell into Rick Blaine’s Place. Understandably locals patronized it because unlike Las Vegas’ platinum gentlemen’s clubs prices weren’t extortive. The entertainers weren’t rude and ravenous. “Sports” could still have merry nights out there without being pressured by hard sells and upsells.

One can have a Croesus amount in an account yet hospitality and gratitude remain priceless – even if that highly marked-up, exquisite vintage isn’t on the wine list.

Similar to the Japanese visitors who sought suitable bondage disciples, Anne’s presumed benefactor must’ve observed and evaluated her. With his wealth, one can presume he had an assembly-line of young, sweet, firm things behind him who satisfied his past itchy needs. I prefer that with age he learned to eventually grow bored of the overabundance of interchangeable flesh.

Maybe he finally understood that after numbing repetition intrigue reinvigorated our pleasure principles. Or he somehow gathered while all the sweet young stuff was attractive something about Anne attracted him.

One weekend, Anne’s presumptive benefactor flew her and another woman down to a shore of pristine Caribbean sand. Let me leave the hoops they jumped through there to speculation. Only Anne received a return invitation.

Any other woman would’ve been grateful for a ride on his gravy train. She also would’ve been calculating from the get how to loot as much as possible before being bounced off the exclusive carriage. Instead, Anne made requests. The deal-breaking inviolable kind.

On one hand, such impertinence towards her imminent patron should’ve derailed any agreements. On the other hand, he couldn’t have helped but admire her negotiating stance. Negotiations were his livelihood. Transferring this process from lucre to fleshly gratifications probably matched the same thrill of banking his first stolen fortune.

In retrospect, what Anne wanted, what she got, wasn’t a huge haul. In fact one suspects actual remuneration to have been quite modest, all things considered.

The children accompanied her on this excursion of exchange. Bottom-liners as both were, and her children young enough to swallow contradictory adult explanations without complaint or contemplation, the strange request didn’t prove an impediment. Moreover, it was a big boat. However, real prestidigitation came when she also included her “husband” on their sojourn.

She envisioned him as ship’s cook.

Anne never bothered explaining why his presence necessary. And big as she claimed the boat was, it wasn’t that big.

Nonetheless she wanted the father of her children along. What was tougher? Getting him to quit his career, uproot himself for what would likely be an extensive, intensive though relatively short-term cruise? Or serving on a vessel so large it contained staterooms, in one of which the mother of his children would be under contract to service the ship’s master?

Since he acquiesced who doubts the cook also prompted the ship’s owner to hire a food taster? The amount of brazenness ought have sunk that scow.

That was two years ago. Las Vegas is so transient and transactional the episode needed Klanger’s reappearance to restore Anne to the forefront of my mind.

Though I’d given Anne a business card, she has yet to contact me. Then, I thought she might’ve. After all, she accepted my information in the reverential Japanese manner, deeply studying the card as if the engraved writing upon it runes. Only after satisfactorily deciphering did she squirrel away our tenuous one-way connection in her clutch.

We must’ve seen each other or gotten together once or twice afterward. Haze makes exact dates hard.

At the end, it was clever hearing Klanger wistfully refer to Anne as “our demimondaine.” A term few Americans could’ve spoken with his conviction. He wondered whether she withered or thrived.

Before our last beer and intent to keep in touch “this time,” I painted inside the frame of Klanger’s conjecture.

The yacht the children, Anne, the cook, and the ship’s master have sailed around the Caribbean sits anchored in one of those ports reminding of Maugham’s pithy line about a “sunny spot for shady people.” A sea breeze refreshes the air. An occasional pile of clouds interrupts the bright depthless blue above. Small waves create soft roars.

In the gilded days, a jolly boat oared by crewmen would’ve ferried the party, its shelter, furnishings, sundries, and victuals, to shore in high style. But now a motor launch serves this end. The quicker and more efficient transport certainly has robbed that sense of arriving.

Under a beach umbrella Anne reclines on a towel atop pristine sand. A Polynesian, after the Mojave’s punishing aridity doesn’t she find the Caribe climate restorative and relaxing?

Anne wears a white two piece which further burnishes her brown figure. Lathed legs crossed, she props her lean form on elbows. From behind shades mother watches her children cavort at water’s edge.

As young children often do they sometimes call to her for attention and reassurance. She waves at them, speaks to both in an encouraging manner never bestowed upon adults. Easily mollified, the kids resume their own magic.

From the ship maybe the cook surveys the scene through a spyglass. If so, can one imagine the questions he asks himself and the conclusions he reaches?

Somewhere in proximity Anne’s benefactor lurks. Like a pasha on the beach, he’s propped up inside a cabana. Attendants now solely wait on him. Laptop and satellite phone, necessities of his offshore living, whether fugitive or financier, or fugitive financier, partly fill the table he lords behind.

Fruits of the sea detritus heaped on fine china and hiding good portions of exquisite flatware await removal at three place settings. What remains of one bottle of fine wine, two items of appropriate glassware for the vintage, one constantly filled, the other drained a short while ago, stands sentinel.

Among this casual decadence looms a soda bottle and highball glasses repurposed for soft drinks.

Sometimes for brief relief from his labors, the man raises eyes from his screen and focuses on the brown streak stretched on the beach. Intuitively, Anne knows when she fills his sight. Sensing these instances she’ll turn to him, return his gaze.

The gesture alone satisfies him. As it must. Behind her glasses she remains inscrutable.

Doesn’t matter. Later at his behest Anne will present him with everything, anything, anyway he wants. He’ll believe she does so gladly. She’ll let him. Because that’s how it works.

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