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BUON FRESCO

Prizewinning Fiction
BUON FRESCO

"I want a fresco," Michel's mother Mireille announced one autumn afternoon. She had just emerged from a three-day migraine, and her face was flushed, her eyes burning and glittery, her little hands pale as candles. Michel did not know what a fresco was, but he was sure his mother should have one. 

They were living in Milan then, in an expensive apartment building with an elevator that had gilt rococo mirrors and red velvet walls. Downstairs, past the concierge's office, rare flowers and potted palms graced a quiet courtyard. Like the sailboat, the holidays in Juan-les-Pins, and Michel's private school, the apartment came courtesy of his father: Bruno Boccanegra was not only a major research scientist, but a flamboyant host of trendy television shows on genetics and a charming guest at countless cocktail parties. Bruno dazzled grant money from important men and dinner invitations from their flattered wives. He got what he wanted. 

This sort of success required effort, of course, and so even then, when Bruno still lived with them, he was gone much of the time. When Michel had been a little younger, his mother had sometimes filled the empty hours by taking him and his baby sister Miriam shopping in the boutiques along Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga, where the snobby saleswomen would coolly observe the sedate, handsome little boy with his mother's eyes and the noisy child in the stroller who irritated them all. But now that he was eight and Miriam had been toddling for a couple of years, his mother often decided to leave them with the nanny so she could appear on her husband's arm at dinners, dances, and meetings with the television people. They would come home late, doors would slam, voices would rise. And one night, when Michel was supposed to be in bed, he had surprised his mother crying in the kitchen downstairs. Shaken, he had scuttled back up to his room and hidden under the covers, hoping she hadn't seen.

But then came the fresco. Mireille was weary of Prada bags and Bulgari jewels, and now she wanted a fresco. They were living in Italy, she said, where the masters had painted for centuries. And in point of fact, Milan was the home of Leonardo's The Last Supper. She deserved a work of art in her home, did she not, a real Italian work of art to compensate for her miserable life in that bitter gray city she'd been dragged to. She wanted an artist to fresco a wall of their apartment. She wanted it ferociously. And because in those days Bruno was still occasionally interested in keeping his wife happy, he opened the purse strings.

The fresco would be painted on a large, bare wall in the piano room. The artist came to inspect the site and confer with the impossibly young woman who had commissioned the work. They stood very close, hips almost touching, as they gazed at the wall and discussed the art of fresco. He sternly corrected her about The Last Supper. It was not a true fresco, which was why it had fallen apart so quickly. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that was a true fresco, what they called buon fresco, painted day by day on sections of wet plaster that absorbed the pigments until the two became one. 

"In the end," he explained, "you will not be able to tell where the wall ends and the fresco begins. Do you see, bella signora, how this differs from merely painting a surface? A true fresco can't be scraped away without destroying it altogether. A true fresco is permanent." 

She widened her pretty eyes and nodded, offered him a glass of red wine. They spent a long afternoon together.

The piano room was a good location for the fresco. Because Mireille left tasks like cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping to the hired help, she could spend hours at her piano. In the evening when she and the children were left to entertain themselves, or during the long solitary afternoons when the slanting sun cast shadows across the ivory yellow walls, Mireille would play and sometimes even sing in her piano room. At eight years old, Michel loved the music desperately. Making himself as small as possible, he would sit on the floor underneath the piano and listen to her play. He might see her slim foot touch the pedal, perhaps glimpse her slender tendons gently flexing. He knew he'd be kicked in the face if he ever tried to touch them, but hidden under the piano, he could gaze unobserved as long as he liked. Sometimes he would even imagine being that pedal, those strings, those polished ivory keys. Uneasy, he struggled in almost painful pleasure as he sank into dreamy Debussy and Chopin, watching his mother's slippered foot and delicate ankle softly pressing the pedal over and over again in that room where her fresco would emerge. 

After Mireille and the artist had educated each other on art and expectations, and now that he, too, wanted to please her, she desired a buon fresco that would depict temples in ancient Greece. Moreover, she wanted the appearance of sunlight sparkling on the blue Aegean. It did not matter to her that this blue was the most problematic color to achieve—what, after all, did one pay the craftsman for? She crossed her shapely arms and pouted, and the artist gently tweaked her nose and scolded her for being a spoilt young signora. She cocked her head, parted her lips to show the tip of her pink tongue, and protested sweetly, her fingers on his arm. He agreed to her terms, of course, but told her that he might have to remove some of the plaster and start over if the color did not hold. 

"That's fine," she said with an air of casual dismissal. "You just do it."

When Michel came home from school to find the black-eyed artist still there, examining the late afternoon light, and his mother in a silk dressing gown with her hair tumbling on her shoulders, he grew anxious and disquieted. The artist made no friendly overtures to Michel. In turn, Michel hovered stubbornly close to his mother even as she brushed him away.

Before the fresco, the children had not been allowed to play unsupervised in the piano room. Now, though, it was a busy place and control was lax, so Michel could slip in unseen to explore his mother's private land. He liked to feast on her paperweight collection, displayed on shelves behind heavy glass doors in locked, lighted cases. There was even a spectacular jewel-encrusted egg that had made her gasp and cry the day his father had brought it home. The egg was behind the doors now, one of the cool and weighty ornaments that squatted there in senseless splendor. Michel sat before the shelves and let the glorious colors fill his eyes—ruby, emerald, topaz, diamond white, and thick turquoise blue—until the complicated shapes seemed to leap somewhere deep inside his groin, bouncing around in disconcerting pleasure. He longed to touch them with his tender fingers like he longed to touch her foot on the piano pedal. Yet she would not have him.

The fresco, though, would let him prove his loyalty. Michel could sense its impending presence like some heavenly being tapping at the windowpane, waiting to be born. Once he dreamed that his mother was holding him like a brush and color poured out of him, covering them both. He woke gasping and confused, feeling like an arrow shooting back into himself as he threw off the blanket in a panic. For days he tried in vain to make the dream come back.

While Bruno initially treated the project with benign disinterest, when the full scale drawing of the work arrived, even he was intrigued. More importantly, he had realized that the project was a fine solution for keeping Mireille out of his hair. No longer did she complain and weep when he was gone, no longer did he feel obligated to bring her to dinners and introduce her to colleagues. No longer did she constantly demand to know where he had been one night or another.

In fact, he even took a trip to Moscow during this period, and she scarcely seemed to notice. With the magnanimity of a single man, he brought back a brightly lacquered Russian nesting doll and a carved wooden box. The nesting doll delighted Mireille for days. She took it apart on top of the piano, put it together, took it apart. When she let Michel touch it, he brushed his fingers across its smooth, shiny surface with reverence. Annoyed, she snatched it from him and put it away on a high shelf that he could not reach.

She did let him use the wooden box, which he filled with foreign coins. And later, when she tired of the nesting doll and forgot it on the floor, Michel surreptitiously hid it in his bedroom where Miriam would never find it. Late at night when all the house was dark, he explored it with a flashlight under the covers, gently removing each doll and examining the smaller one within until he came to the very tiniest doll deep inside, with her miniature painted babushka and gaudy apron. This still beauty offered him inexplicable comfort and safety, as if he himself were protected under his mother's skirts. As if he himself were an adored toy.

But what Mireille adored was the fresco, and this required the participation of the entire household. In good faith, Michel embraced it for her. The day the actual painting started, he could barely contain his excitement as he burst into the house after school. He rushed into the piano room to watch the artist finishing the first section—a giornata, he called it, a day's work. He had coated part of the blank wall with wet plaster, and now there was a miraculous patch of shimmering blue sky and the tip of an ancient column.

"Don't touch it, Michel," Mireille told him, her voice like hard little nails. "I've locked Miriam up and I'll lock you up too if you touch it now."

Hurt, Michel crawled under the piano and gazed at the work in progress. He would not have touched it. She should have known that he wanted this fresco as much as she did. More than his father wanted it, more than that daddy's girl Miriam, even more than that unfriendly artist. He wanted it for her, and he wanted it to be perfect. She'd see, she'd see how much he wanted it. 

The creation of the fresco marked the beginning of a new, startling pattern in the family dynamic. Midway through the work, following a short trip to Rome, Bruno brought home Blanca, who was younger than even his mother and had flowing hair and burgundy lips. He introduced her vaguely as the friend of a colleague. She was interested in art, he said, and she had never seen a fresco in progress, so he had thought to bring her over for dinner to have a look. Mireille refused to speak to her, and Miriam misbehaved and knocked her cup off the table. Michel was uneasy, wary as a fox of that woman, though her face, her arms, the tilt of her soft nose, were undeniably attractive. Blanca, wide-eyed, had little to say to anyone, though Bruno was unusually jovial, his smile unfamiliar. He sat between Blanca and Mireille and drank glass after glass of good wine, then he took Blanca by the arm and led her into Mireille's piano room to see the fresco. After he escorted her home some time later, Mireille banished the children to their rooms, and a long silence ensued. The housekeeper was gone, so Michel had to get Miriam ready for bed himself. 

"I don't want you," she protested. "I want Papá, I want Papá."

Tight-lipped, his own stomach knotted and sick, he admonished her in a low voice: "Stop it, Miriam, he's not here, now be good and go to sleep.

She cried and flailed and kicked at him so hard that he had to hold her down. But she finally fell asleep despite herself, and it was only Michel who heard the voices in the middle of the night, and the sound of breaking glass.

When the fresco was finally done, it was impossible to tell where the painter had started and ended-the scene was complete and every giornata was inextricably meshed. That was the miracle, the artist told his mother—that a blank wall could be transformed so mysteriously, the pigments so impregnated into the plaster that they had now become one with it. The ancient art of buon fresco. Michel loved it so much that he tried to walk into it, only to hit his nose on the wall and knock himself down. His father disdainfully wanted to know what was the matter with him—he'd seen the man painting it, he knew it was a picture, did he not? 

Of course Michel knew. But when it was finished, the fresco seemed to have transformed into something altogether more solid, stunning and compelling than plaster and paint. It was the thing of beauty that his mother had desired, and how could he be blamed for wanting to get under its plaster skin? He'd wanted to become that temple, to sink into that glittering blue sea, to drown in the fresco. And it bothered him that when Miriam shrieked and flung herself at the rocky shore and the craggy Mediterranean pines, his father laughed warmly and swept her up in his arms.

"You want to climb those rocks, eh? You want to swim? Smart girl, Miriam, smart baby."

Why, Michel wondered, was that smart. And look, she'd left a scuff mark on the plaster, and a dirty fingerprint too. Wait till his mother saw, wait till his father was gone. She'd smack Miriam hard, she would, she'd lock her in her room, and then they'd finally have some peace and quiet so they could enjoy the fresco together.

And that, in fact, is exactly what happened. Bruno spoke into the telephone that night in a thick, intimate voice that Michel had never heard before. By the time Bruno hung up, his eyes had grown foreign and hot; it was only a matter of minutes before he was out the door, leaving only a feral scent behind him. When Miriam threw a tantrum, Mireille slapped her face twice, threw her into her room and locked the door. She then retreated into the bathroom and ran an interminable shower while Michel knelt before the fresco in the piano room.

When Mireille finally came out and flung herself, exhausted, onto the big armchair by the piano, he ventured over to timidly touch her hand. Like clouds parting, she turned to him then with a new, coquettish smile just like the one she'd reserved for the artist himself, and made room for him next to her. Breathless, Michel took his place. As they contemplated the new fresco, he thought that if she ever desired another one, perhaps he could help her conceive it. Perhaps he could be the special one. And when Mireille murmured into his ear that he was her man now, her wonderful little boy who loved his mother so well, all Michel could do was swallow in wordless gratitude. Closing his eyes, he let himself sink, a dying sun, and vanish into her beautiful new fresco. 

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