Fiction by Samuel Burleigh

 

The Edward Hopper House

It was a bitingly cold winter, even by the frigid standards of New England. Stephen James, a severely depressed, financially destitute bisexual painter, lived in Truro, a tiny town populated with artists and writers, which blossomed in the summer months due to its close proximity to Provincetown. James had moved to the small village after spending his life in the grungy environs of inner-city Philadelphia. He had thought such a secluded town would offer a perfect opportunity to hone his craft and even achieve his dream of becoming a successful or acclaimed painter. The fact that Truro was once the sometime home of his idol, the late Edward Hopper, sealed the deal.

Over ten years later, Stephen had failed to set the art world on fire. His moody, dreamlike expressionism paintings were too abstract for a large audience, yet too derivative for the serious art critic. About the only benefit of his move, if it could be called that, was the casual sex he often received during cold, lonely nights at a Provincetown hotel. These encounters led Stephen to finally embrace his bisexuality, which he had long buried when married to his beautiful poet wife Sandy, who died of cervical cancer at the age of 26 shortly before he made the move from Philadelphia to Cape Cod.

When not painting, James lost himself in tequila, the dry melancholy of Leonard Cohen, and the hopeless de-humanism of Franz Kafka. On many occasions, he contemplated suicide, but decided against it. He realized that there was a slight possibility he would be hailed a genius after killing himself, and being a staunch atheist, he was convinced he was never going to find out about this occurrence. He would rather live a long, bleak life as a failure than die one and never get to experience the elation of being a success.

 

Photography © Allison Goldin
Photography © Allison Goldin

 

A mere three miles away from James’ home was the cottage Edward Hopper and his wife owned for many years. Although he longed to visit it, he never once stopped by in all the time he had lived there. He felt that visiting the home of such a legendary artist would only remind him what a colossal failure he was. Although Stephen wanted to be a painter since he was in preschool, he often scolded himself for his foolish decision. Becoming an artist throughout history was a perpetually unwise decision, but it especially is in the 21st Century, in which there are no nationally known and commercially successful living painters, the most recently deceased being the absolutely talentless hack Thomas Kinkade.

One especially dark and freezing January morning, Stephen decided to take a walk over to the Hopper House for the first time for some inspiration. Indeed, his life seemed like a Hopper painting, but he would rather emulate the painter’s craft than his squalid subjects. He huddled tightly in a winter coat, and headed towards the stormy beach, with a single white cottage gleaming in front of a lovely yet desolate landscape. He stood in front of the unassuming house, and sat for nearly an hour, deep in thought concerning the abyss of his sad little life. He finally rose up to leave, when he suddenly noticed a lamp on in the living room, and a middle-aged woman with bushy red hair and an old-fashioned dress reading a book by Nathanael West. Intrigued by her inexplicable presence and uncanny resemblance to Edward’s wife Josephine, he hesitantly decided to knock on the door.

The commanding noise visibly startled the woman, who jumped out of the chair. She nervously answered the door. “What do you want, sir?” “Hi, sorry to be rude, but what are you doing in Edward Hopper’s house?” The woman’s face twitched with confusion, and then she laughed hysterically. “For heaven’s sake, I’m his wife, Josephine.” Stephen chuckled and shook his head. “That’s impossible. She died in 1968.” “How can you know that?!” she exclaimed. “That’s 31 years in the future!” Stephen shook his head and twitched nervously. “I have no idea what is going on here.”

“Neither do I,” Josephine affirmed. “Do you want to come in? I can make some hot coffee if you want, it’s brutally cold out there.” “Sure,” Stephen shrugged. He walked in hesitantly, several steps behind Josephine.

“Sorry this house is so modestly furnished. It is only a part-time dwelling. Normally we live in a spacious Midtown Manhattan apartment.” “It’s fine. Actually, I like the décor.” “Thank you,” Josephine blushed, “but there’s no need to lie.” Stephen chuckled. “I’m not. I enjoy it immensely; it makes sense that the wife of an artistic genius would have great taste in decoration.”

Josephine’s eyebrows rose towards the ceiling. “Artistic genius? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, now.” “I honestly think he is a master, and one of the best of the century.” Josephine snorted. “You do realize Picasso, Magritte, and Kandinsky are still alive and well, correct?” “Of course. I’d argue that he is on par with any of them.” Josephine chuckled. “Well, it’s nice you think that. I mean, before I married Ed, I thought that I was the superior artist. I still do. I just wish I weren’t the only one who thought so. Now I’m just a housewife,” Josephine sighed. “So, on that note, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m actually a painter myself, based here in Truro,” Stephen replied. “Really? What is your full name?” “Stephen James.” “I have to admit, I’ve never heard of you.” “I’m not very successful,” Stephen shrugged. Josephine nodded with understanding. “It’s okay. Neither was Ed, in the beginning.” “The beginning?!” Stephen exclaimed. “I’ve been busting my ass for over a decade, to no avail.” “A decade may seem like a long time, but it often takes far more than that to achieve success, especially in a fickle business like painting.”

“I guess,” Stephen shrugged. “Do you have a girlfriend?” Josephine asked, with curiosity shining in her inquisitive eyes. Stephen became solemn. “I did have a wife, but she passed away right before I moved to Truro.” Josephine’s eyes widened with concern. “Oh, Stephen, I am so sorry.” “It’s okay. Life goes on. For better or worse, I suppose.” “Indeed. Well, I can hear and smell that coffee boiling. I’ll be right back.” Stephen sat, as his long-suppressed grief about his late wife re-emerged.

The aroma of fresh coffee wafted in the air, as Josephine entered the room. Stephen looked up to his amazement, as Josephine carried the mugs of coffee while completely naked, revealing a shapely, milky white body. Stephen was flabbergasted. “What on earth? What would Edward think?”

“Nothing. It didn’t happen if he wasn’t here to see it. And I know for sure he does the same thing all the time. Where do you think he is now? He’s not in his Manhattan studio, that’s for sure.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Stephen robotically replied.

“Who says it’s wrong? Monogamy made sense when everyone died at age 30. It makes not an iota of sense now.” “Fair enough,” Stephen said ravenously, as he unzipped his pants and tore off his sweater. His slim yet flabby naked body lay next to the beautiful form of Josephine Hopper.

“I know this is a personal question, but when’s the last time you made love to a woman?” “11 years. This will be indescribably refreshing.” “It will for me as well.” The two strangers made passionate love for what seemed like hours.

Stephen closed his eyes and swooned, and after it was over, he opened them to gaze at his beloved. Yet when his eyes opened, Josephine was nowhere to be found, and he was back in his bed in 2014. He began to shed a cold, lonely tear.

Yet, suddenly, he had an inspiration. Stephen started work immediately on a lovingly detailed, completely non-abstract portrait of the nude, womanly body of Josephine Hopper. He labored on it for ages, but finally it was finished, and he was convinced that he had painted his masterpiece. He titled it, fittingly, Edward Hopper’s Wife.

 

Samuel Burleigh is currently working on writing a short story cycle set on the 15 towns of the Cape, and the islands of Martha’ Vineyard and Nantucket.

Allison Goldin is an artist living in Cambridge. Her work is a collection of spontaneous drawings from the imagination. The most common link throughout her art are the semi-recognizable creatures scattered amongst and bringing together the surrounding doodles. She is currently studying Illustration at The School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

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