On the walls of the New York Museum of Fine Art, an oil painting is displayed. The subject is a beautiful young woman, tastefully nude. Her long brown hair is draped in front of her, covering her breasts and flowing almost to her navel. Her left hand modestly covers her private parts; her right hand is extended, offering a handful of mixed berries. Her dark brown eyes stare boldly back at the viewer. She smiles cryptically, a smile that has been compared to that of Michelangelo's "Mona Lisa."
"Woman With Berries" (1981) by Cliff Stoker, actually was done by the artist a few months after he did the original sketches of the model. The original framed charcoal sketch for this painting, now yellowed with age, hangs on the wall of a cabin in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The model is believed to be...
"Don't fall in love with a dreamer, Monique," her mother had warned her. "Writers, painters, musicians, they're all the same. They're all dreamers. None of them ever amount to anything. Find yourself a man with a profession or a trade, Monique. They're the ones who can support a family."
Monique met Cliff in her second semester "Drama and Literature" class during her freshman year of college. She quickly noticed that he wore the exact same outfit every day: Black denim jeans, a black turtleneck shirt and a black beret. He wore eyeglasses with round lenses and a pencil-thin moustache that crawled across the lower edge of his upper lip. Monique almost chuckled to herself the first time she saw him, since it appeared that he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a beatnik, John Lennon or Clark Gable, and was combining the three. He parted his longish hair in the middle and when she finally got a chance to look at his eyes, she noticed that they were the dark green of summer leaves. They seemed to pierce right through her.
She figured that with that look, he had to be a poser. She was a little surprised to find out that there was some substance to him. She liked the dry wit he displayed in the classroom, and enjoyed the occasional opportunity for dramatic readings with him. She noticed that she was not the only woman in the classroom who found Cliff attractive; other women would sometimes stay after class to chat with him.
The school year was drawing to a close, and for Monique, the days turned into a whirl of cramming for final exams. For days on end, nothing but hour after hour of studying. She was so afraid that she wouldn't do well on the tests. Finally, the exams were over and Monique dragged through the Friday after, worn to a frazzle. Cliff, sitting next to her, noticed how drained she was.
"You okay, Monique?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she replied. "Just a little stressed out, with all these finals."
"Understandable," Cliff told her. "Everybody is stressed out. Fortunately, I've found the answer to it."
"What's that?" Monique asked.
"Well," Cliff said, "My folks have a cabin up in the mountains, and I am going up there this weekend to decompress. Nothing like a weekend swimming in the lake and sitting in the woods to bring back some equilibrium."
"Sounds nice," said Monique, a little enviously.
"It is," agreed Cliff. "I usually like to go up there for solitude, but I'll tell you what: You look like you could use some equilibrium, too. You want to come up and spend the weekend with me? It's a little primitive..."
"And what would the sleeping arrangements be?" Monique asked.
"The cabin has two twin beds, on opposite corners. It's only one big room, plus the bathroom behind it. Like I said, it is a bit primitive, with no electricity..."
Monique thought for a minute, her fingers running idly through her long brown hair. The school year was almost over and she would be going home for the summer. She liked Cliff and was intrigued at the idea of getting an opportunity to spend some time with him to get to know him better. Why not...
"Okay," she said. "Sounds like a plan to me."
"Great!" said Cliff. "I'll meet you at the Student Union at four, and we'll drive up from there."
Monique went back to her dorm after her classes ended and gathered her things for the weekend. Clothes, swimsuit, makeup, toiletries, sandals... She looked at the box of condoms in her drawer, still unopened after all these months. Would she need them? 'Better safe than sorry,' she told herself, and tossed them into her overnight bag.
Cliff was waiting for her at the Student Union, standing next to his black Triumph Spitfire convertible. He wore round-lensed sunglasses instead of his normal spectacles. He opened the trunk, and she put her bag into it next to the ice chest it already contained. He walked around to the passenger side and unlocked the door, holding it open for Monique. She smiled at him, climbed in and shut the door, buckling her safety belt as soon as the door was closed. Cliff walked around, got in the driver's seat, buckled up and started the car. He revved the engine a couple of times, and then they were off, driving westward into the mountains.
The flat plain of the Piedmont turned into foothills, and then the foothills turned into mountains. The car radio lost the college radio station soon after they left the city limits, and then it seemed that all that was on the radio was country music, which neither Cliff nor Monique really liked.
"Get that case out from under your seat, would you, Monique?" asked Cliff. Monique hooked her arm under the seat and pulled out a black plastic box that contained several cassette tapes. She flipped the lid up and scanned the titles.
"Anything in particular you want, Cliff?" she asked.
"Mmmmm... How about Coltrane?"
Monique opened the case labeled "Coltrane" and popped the cassette into the car's tape player. Soon the mellow sounds of "Blue Train" were playing from the speakers as the wind whipped through their hair. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows behind the car as they sped sunward. The clouds were starting to build in front of them, presaging rough weather ahead. Monique's fingers tapped on her door, keeping time with the jazzy rhythms.
Monique looked at Cliff's hands on the steering wheel as he drove. His fingers were long and slender. He had artist's hands. She supposed it was possible for a man with short, stubby fingers to be an artist, but she had never yet seen one who was. They were usually ditchdiggers, bricklayers, men who labored with their hands. Strange how the men whose hands were best designed for creating art were usually those who did.
The drive wasn't all that long, only about an hour and a half. They went from the highway to a side road and from the side road to a dirt road that wound around the side of a mountain and down to the shore of a small lake. Monique saw a small cabin ahead of them, with something large on top of it like a cancerous growth.
As Cliff brought the car to a halt in front of the cabin, Monique asked, "What's that on top of the cabin?"
"It's a cistern," Cliff answered. "It catches rainwater and filters it, so we have some running water for bathing and washing. You still have to boil it before it is drinkable, though."
The land sloped down from the cabin to the edge of the lake. There were no other works of man in sight; the cabin was totally isolated. Cliff got out and opened the trunk and picked up the ice chest and brought it inside the cabin. Monique grabbed her overnight bag and followed him in.
The first thing she noticed when she entered was the fireplace. It was made of gray limestone and mortar, with a metal grille in front of it. Cliff went over to it and noted the pile of firewood next to it approvingly. He flipped the lever to open the flue, then started setting the wood in the fireplace.
"Will we need a fire?" Monique asked.
"You'd better believe it," Cliff told her. "It gets cold up here in the mountains after dark, even in early summer. You can check in that closet over there for linens for the beds, as well as blankets. We'll need them, too, since we'll have to bank the fire before we go to bed. You would not believe how cold it gets by morning!"
"I'll take your word for it and bundle up!" Monique replied with a grin.
"I'd better go back out and put up the roof on the car," Cliff said. "It's looking like it might rain."
It was indeed. Dark clouds were rolling in from the west, and no sooner was Cliff back inside the cabin than the tell-tale rumble of thunder came from outside. Cliff got to work lighting the fire, with Monique helping as best she could by staying out of the way. Soon the fire was crackling merrily in the hearth.
"Ready for some dinner?" Cliff asked.
"Sure," Monique replied. "What are we having?"
"Well, since we have inclement weather," Cliff said, with thunder punctuating his sentence in the background, "we will just have to make do with the food we brought." He took a pot from a nearby cabinet and then poured a can of beef stew into it. After putting it over the fire to warm, he went to the ice chest and took out a bottle of red wine. He popped the cork, allowing the wine to breathe. "A nice Beaujolais... Does it meet with your approval?" he asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Oui, oui!" said Monique. "Red wine goes with red meat, doesn't it?"
"It does indeed, my sweet," Cliff told her. He went back to the cabinet and took out a couple of wine glasses. "We have all of the amenities here, my dear." He filled the glasses, then went back to the stew, which was by now bubbling over the fire. He ladled the stew onto two plates, handed one to Monique along with a fork and then gave her the glass of red wine.
.... There is more of this story ...