Start to Finish
Pamela A. Williams © 2020
All Rights Reserved
As I hobbled to the door, I could see, through the leaded glass, a stout Black man in a dated tweed blazer. He was staring intently at my approach, which made me wish that I was dressed in more than a robe and flannel pajama bottoms. Opening the door, I saw that there was a second man, a few steps down, looking out toward the street. “Professor Ian Start?” said the man in front of me.
“Yes?” I said, tearing my gaze away from the familiar pale ginger head.
“I’m Detective Henry Ransom from the Providence Police Department. May we have a few minutes of your time?” At that point, the tawny head turned, and it was, as I knew it would be, Jake. Right on cue, Ransom said, “This is Detective Jake Quinn.” Our eyes met and held. In the moment, I was delighted to see him. But in my moment of pleasure, I could see wariness and warning in his eyes, a slight shake of his head that clearly said don’t acknowledge. I immediately assumed there were some gay identity issues at play and kept my trap shut. Everyone knew I was gay, but I was well aware of guilt by association.
“Yes, of course, come in. We were just having coffee. Can I get you a cup?” Ever the perfect host, eh? With no small amount of trepidation, I led them to the kitchen where Rita was sitting at my little table. It looks out over a small terracotta-tiled patio with a wildflower garden beyond, looking bleak and dead in the frigid morning with black stems and flower heads that hadn’t been tended to before the winter frosts.
“Yeah, coffee would be good,” said Detective Ransom. I raised my eyebrows at Jake, who merely nodded. I knew he took it black but inquired of both anyway. Rita introduced herself, and they all shook hands. I didn’t get a handshake. I began to feel very nervous. My knuckles started to prickle.
Rita rents my street-level apartment. Short and trim, with crazy hair from an indeterminate ethnic background, she’s my closest friend even if she is a social worker. I had an overload of social workers during the time I was in the hospital, all telling me how fucked up I was going to be when I got out. After that, I swore off them permanently, but Rita was the exception. Despite our connection, Rita was a little bit of an enigma; quiet as a whisper, I never heard music or a loud voice from her apartment, so it was hard to tell if she was home or not, and I never knew if she had company because she apparently didn’t keep regular hours. But every Sunday morning without fail she’d be at my back door with croissants and hot chocolate and dressed in tight stretchy sportswear, perfectly comfortable with me in pajama bottoms and my faded silk robe. And that’s how a Sunday morning found us, the second of January, a sunny, cold winter day, when we heard the knock at the front door.
“I’m going to head back downstairs, Ian. If you need anything, just call.” And then she was gone. Cops can do that: clear a room instantly.
I poured two cups from the carafe and retrieved a carton of milk from the refrigerator for Ransom, letting him pour. “What’s going on?” I asked.
Ransom spoke. Jake didn’t say a word. “You are acquainted with a Thomas Wilson.” Statement, not a question.
“He was a student of mine, yes.” The answer to the nonquestion.
“Was?” Ransom asked, a hint of a challenge in the tone.
“Yes,” I said warily. “He’s taken his last drawing class. I teach drawing.”
“When was the last time you saw him?” Again Ransom. Christ. This was bad. I was going to hear that Thomas was missing. Missing or hurt, or…no, not going there. My stomach roiled a little.
“What’s going on?” I asked again. And in nearly a whisper. “What kind of detectives are you? Missing persons?” Yeah, like there are missing persons detectives. I was hoping for the best out of the only other option.
“Homicide,” said Ransom. I sat down hard on the nearest chair. Ransom then asked again, “When was the last time you saw Thomas Wilson?”
No, I do not want to hear what’s coming. “The last day of class. Um, the twelfth, I guess. He helped me load portfolios into my car. Are you telling me Thomas is dead?” Jake nodded but said nothing. “Are you sure? Sure it was Thomas? What happened? When?” They were wrong, had the wrong kid, were talking to the wrong instructor. I stared uncomprehendingly at Ransom. I couldn’t meet Jake’s eyes at all. I felt helpless. My knuckles began to itch, and I distractedly scratched at them.
The last class of the semester meant gathering student portfolios stuffed with the required drawings for the final review. The logistics of collecting these generally involved a student helping me tote the unwieldy load to my car. Some are classic black leather affairs with a handle, some are shallow aluminum boxes—I hate those; they are heavy and cumbersome—and some are homemade cardboard folders with a cutout handle and ties on the side. Those usually belong to students from middle-class families and scholarship students. Sometimes they’re decorated with drawings but most often not, reflecting time constraints. Thomas had offered to help, even before I had made the request. I’d had him in most of my drawing classes. He was enormously talented, so I felt I could never teach him much, but he had to take the classes to progress up the academic tree in credits. We liked each other. He was a young gay man who had always been out, had the support of his middle-class working parents, and had not experienced the same homophobia that older generations had.
I was also aware he had a crush on me. I was not bothered by this realization. I’d crushed on many of my instructors. My straight colleagues talked about getting love notes, hints, come-ons all the time. Thomas had done none of those things. He was always polite, helpful, appropriate. But I could tell by how helpful he wanted to be, or the way his eyes lingered, and by the few times his adolescent body betrayed him. I’d wanted to tell him that it was normal. But I also remembered the humiliation of having my body unexpectedly show my desires.
“What’s next for you, Thomas?” I’d asked. Although a painter, I was hired only to teach drawing classes, and Thomas had taken his last with me. He could have gone on to upper-level drawing, but he didn’t need to. Thomas had wanted to be an illustrator and he was exceptional. I’d wanted him to pursue portraiture because of his uncanny ability to capture his subject’s inner tone, but he was shyly uninterested.
“Oh, I’ll work on my illustration and graphic design, I guess.” He’d paused with a faint look of regret. “I’m kinda sorry I don’t need any more drawing classes. I’m gonna miss y—them,” he stuttered and then blushed.
“Well, I’ll be around. Stop by and let me know how you’re doing, will you?” I’d said as we finished loading the last of the artwork into the back seat of my Civic. He nodded. As I drove away, he offered a short wave. I’d miss him too, I’d thought at the time. He was a nice kid, genuine, warm, and bright, who didn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and I’d felt quite protective of him.
I’d told the students I would have their portfolios graded in a week, and then they would have a week after that to retrieve them before the office staff was off for the winter break. If they weren’t able to get them by then, they could pick them up starting the first week of January. With Christmas in the mix, portfolios often sat there until February. By the end of a semester, grading the work was not difficult. I knew where most of the students stood in terms of ability, effort, and passion for the subject. The hardest task was composing the short critique I enclosed with every collection. And if the student was in the upper-level classes, I’d attach a more thorough evaluation; after all, for many, it was their last drawing class. So I kind of had my work cut out for me for the next week. I remembered thinking that the task would keep my mind off the man who almost ran me down.
Only a few weeks before the end of the semester, on a day where the wind was blowing the rain sideways—I couldn’t see much of anything, not even the big gray sedan turning right. I’d just entered the crosswalk, walking against the light, when the car skidded to a halt, and the driver blasted his horn. I froze, but between the swipes of his windshield wipers, I caught a glimpse of him. And he of me. When I finally walked on after he drove past, I’d thought at the time: nah, couldn’t be. It was just a similar face. Lots of cute Irishmen in this part of the world. Nope, nope. But I knew it was him. Jake.
The raw, rainy Novembers of New England’s South Coast are hard on my faulty leg, but I hobbled on, as fast as I could, to an early class. Even though I felt unsettled and agitated for the rest of the day, I taught my courses with as much attention as I could muster, despite that morning’s shock and the rush of memories at seeing his face. I tried to concentrate on the utter delight I get out of helping young artists see what they’re looking at, and learning what isn’t there is as important as what is, so now I might sound like a professor—which I am: I teach drawing at Rhode Island School of Design. I teach students to begin a drawing by seeing the arrangement not by line but by space. Drawing classes, after all, are about depiction. The contrapuntal relationship between subject and negative space is the essence of representation. The form of a tricycle emerges from the shape of where the trike is not. Outlining is not the way to learn to draw, and nothing is learned until students can define an object by shadow, light, and space. When they internalize this concept, an instructor sees an artist in bud. It had been a typical day; the unrestrained hubbub of students filled the halls, and time was wasted by the tedium of repetitive and unnecessary paperwork created by an administration that had never done the work. But my edginess that day was unrelenting.
That evening in the comfort of home, naïvely hoping to avoid memories, I poured a double Lagavulin and gulped half of it immediately. I forced myself not to forgo dinner entirely, heated up leftover lamb stew, and shoveled it down while standing at the sink.
Then I headed up to my studio, intending to work on the third painting of a series of male nudes. They were stark: a myriad of flesh tones on unadorned backgrounds tending toward blues and greens, the depth coming from paint thickness and underpainting. I am an unabashed expressionist. I paint the way I experience, how I feel about what I see. My abstract figurative work has been described as “jewel-toned Willem de Kooning,” or sometimes Egon Schiele. The “jewel-tone” descriptor is accurate, and while I like de Kooning’s style, I don’t particularly like his depiction of women. They seem to convey de Kooning’s hostility toward them, more than anything, which I find too disturbing and negatively stereotypical. Some of my best friends are women. Egon Schiele, on the other hand, seems to see the injury in us all, even if his nudes provoke shudders. Regardless, I never appreciate my style being compared to others; it’s unimaginative. My style’s mine, critics ought to figure out a way to talk about it. I suppose all artists complain about being lumped together. I will only talk about my art in terms of paint, color, texture, and the elements. The remainder is internal. I put it out for viewers to have their own experience, draw their own conclusions, but my innards are nobody else’s business.
But, anyway, that night, instead of picking up my favorite bristle brush, I settled back in my soft, ancient, paint-stained leather chair and stared at the beginnings of the nude and thought about Jake and about the time we’d first met. It was at a friend’s art opening at a gallery near Rhode Island College where I had been teaching creative writing. I was standing in the gallery’s loft space looking down at the exhibit when I spotted him. He was with a young redheaded woman whose arm was locked through his. He was handsome in a way that bordered on cute, but the expression on his face was too serious and thoughtful to be boyish. Tall, maybe two inches shorter than my six three, thick, pale reddish-blond hair that would curl if not cut short, high cheekbones in an angular face, a forehead in sculpted planes smooth as marble, with a lovely, full bottom lip, and a soft cleft in his chin. His face lit up when he laughed; his mouth open as if surprised, straight white top teeth visible, laugh lines folded around his mouth and eyes. Eyes a blue that was not like my ex-lover Arty’s metallic shimmery blue, but a more intense, intent blue. I thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. His gaze had caught mine, and I felt a stirring. There was something about how expressive his face was that made me think he was gay. Mais, non, la jeune fille, oui? Anyway, he’d turned away first, so there was my answer.
A half hour later though, I found him at my elbow sans said “fille.” “I’m Jake Quinn,” he said and held out his hand. “You’re the poet Ian Start, aren’t you?” I was flabbergasted. I’d published two small volumes and had featured in a few literary publications like Two Penny Review, and New London Poets, but I am about as far from well-known as a foot soldier in the movie Ben Hur. I seem to be more of a writer’s writer, a gay one at that, and so another poet may have heard of me, but certainly no one at Barnes and Noble. Sales had been expectedly dismal. But that was ok. It is always flattering to see oneself in print, not to mention that a tenure-track professor must publish or perish.
“Yes, I am. How on earth did you hear of me?” I realized I wasn’t letting go of his hand and chuckled a little as I finally withdrew mine. His grasp had been warm, dry, and intimate—or so I’d imagined.
He said, “I read a few poems of yours in a magazine.” His voice was a clear baritone and fluid as glass. “They really resonated with me. Then I saw your books at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, down in the remainders section, so I bought one.”
I have an ego. I was smitten. I asked him what brought him to the opening, and he said his sister was an art student at RISD, and they often go to art openings together.
“Sister? Ah, was that your sister I saw you with?” But what was I doing? Arty was in my life then, and I’d been a faithful lover. I’d never had a desire to stray. Only vaguely lonely when Arty wasn’t around, I depended on my arts, writing and painting, to keep me busy, to keep me from thinking about what Arty was up to the evenings he was at his place in Manhattan.
“Mm-hmm,” he said, “but she had a late date.” And then he raised one pretty, tawny eyebrow… I took him home.
That was, what? Four, five years ago? In retrospect, those months were so uncomplicated, sublime. I was on my way to tenure and looking forward to a secure future. I was feeling confident, energetic, excited for…more. We were together from spring through the summer of that year. To have someone so available made me feel desired in a way I didn’t feel with Arty. Jake, aside from the physical attraction, admired me, was impressed by me in a way Arty wasn’t. It was flattering. Jake was funny and fun, open to new experiences, energetic and self-assured. And he was more adventurous in bed than Arty; he was not particular about positions. Arty only wanted to receive, and I missed the sensations of being entered that I’d discovered in my earlier sexual experiences. Jake had liked giving me those pleasures, taking control, and it was so erotic being taken, to cede control. But Arty was my first serious, long-term lover, and I was committed to him in a way that I couldn’t well describe to Jake. I tried to be open and honest with him, but I knew that wasn’t stopping the deepening of feelings on Jake’s part. Mine too, maybe, but I only see that now.
Ransom was staring intently back. He had surprising hazel eyes, feline in their slight slant. “Who loaded Thomas’s portfolio into your car, you or him?”
“I really don’t know.” I wanted to look away, but his stare felt like some kind of power struggle; it also seemed important that I maintain the eye lock. “How…how was he killed? When?” I’m not sure I wanted to know, but in the moment, I felt I owed it to Thomas to not shut him out in death. My mind raced through scenarios: Drugs? Didn’t seem likely. Robbery? Christ, he was a student; no money there. Hate crime? Then my brain stalled, and I thought absolutely nothing. Jake was looking at my hands, watching the scratching, and I remembered an argument we’d had when we were seeing each other. He became unreasonably convinced that I scratched my knuckles when I was lying. The itch actually is some sort of reaction to my being nervous, or agitated, or, yes, when I’m lying. I’d accused him of being a perpetual cop; he’d continued to accuse me of lying (as my itch grew worse); it was a no-win argument, and I’d finally given up and said, “Whatever.” Today, when I caught him watching my hands, I shoved them each into the opposing sleeves of my robe, kabuki-like.
Finally, Jake spoke the words I didn’t want to hear. “It was a gunshot to the head, Ian, New Year’s Eve.” I thought it was kind of bullshit that he was the one to say it. I would rather it had been Ransom. I didn’t want to associate those words about a lovely, vulnerable young man I’d cared about with Jake. I wanted to keep my image of Jake…well, untainted, maybe. It was then the threatening tears eased over and splattered onto my arm, making an alarmingly stark stain on the celadon silk of my robe. Jake stood. For a split second, I thought he was coming around the table to: What? Pat me on the back? Put an arm around my shoulders? Hold me? I snorted back a self-deprecating laugh. Jake plucked a couple of paper towels off the roll on the counter and handed them to me.
“May I ask where you were around eleven that night, Professor Start?” Ransom spoke in a quiet smoker’s voice. It was an even tenor, not monotone or emotionless, but jaded, perhaps, as if he’d heard it all.
I felt the heat rising in my neck and was embarrassed by the inevitable blush I knew I sported. It looks like a runaway rash. The reddening starts at my neck and runs like estuaries up my face in unattractive rivulets. If I looked guilty of anything, it was of the ugly show, even though it was from indignation and disbelief at the meaning behind the question. But Ransom wouldn’t know that. “I was here, in my studio, all night.” Now my knuckles were at a full-blown burn.
“Anyone see you here? Maybe you got a phone call? Made a call? Sent an email? It was the holidays, so did you talk to family or friends, maybe on New Year’s Eve?” Ransom again. I wondered if there was some agreement that he would be doing all the talking except to deliver the really shitty lines?
“I was painting. I tend to shut the world off when I’m in my studio. No one called. I checked my phones the next morning.” By shutting the world out, I mean that I put music on that I eventually don’t hear and fall entirely into the painting. Often, when I put my paint-laden brush to a canvas, I fall into an abyss and results can be horribly beautiful. The finished work often terrifies me.
“Had Thomas ever visited you here, at your home?” Ransom continued. Some faculty had parties or gatherings with students, but I am somewhat introverted and never had students over. Call me rigid or old fashioned, but while I would chat with students in the coffee shops around town if I saw them, I thought it was always best to keep clear boundaries.
“No. I don’t have students here. Ever.”
“Ever meet with Thomas off-campus anywhere? His apartment, maybe?” Ransom’s questions, let alone his stare, were getting annoying, to say the least. I sipped at my coffee, gaining a few seconds to corral my tendency toward sarcasm and snark. But then I started overthinking that move and wondered if they thought I was delaying answering to craft a lie.
“No. Of course not.” I’d see him at coffee shops sometimes and perhaps chat for a few minutes, but that was it. I would have long conversations with him at school in the art office, but I felt disinclined to share.
“You left graded artwork folders, portfolios, for your students at your school office last month, right?” I nodded. “Do you remember what day that was, the time?”
“I think it must have been the eighteenth. Before Christmas anyway. In the morning, late morning. Jennifer, the art department’s student assistant, helped me unload them. She might remember the time.”
“And you are sure you never met with Thomas outside of RISD, never went to dinner or a movie, socialized?” Huh. Ransom had a way of saying a whole bunch in one word, and I knew exactly what he meant by “socialized” despite the neutral, guileless way he spoke.
“What’s going on here? Why these questions?” This time, I did not bother to hide my increasing annoyance.
“Professor Start, there were some…indications in Thomas’s apartment that imply there might have been something more than just a teacher/student relationship between you and him. Would you like to comment on that?” Ransom was exceedingly polite in everything he said or asked, and I thought the effect was worse than some hardboiled type getting in my face. At least then I’d have a better reason for punching him in the throat.
I didn’t punch him in the throat. Instead, I stood, my mouth opening and closing like a landed trout. I looked back and forth between Ransom and Jake, mentally willing the morning to rewind itself. Finally, my focus fell on Jake and stayed. He met mine for a long second, his navy eyes cool. I never thought they could be anything but warm until now. He looked away. I plopped down again, feeling utterly defeated, and it had nothing to do with the near accusation. It had more to do with Jake’s iciness.
I’d imagined Jake here in my home with me countless times after Arty left. Now here he was, and I was afraid of him. I felt abandoned. Guilty, but of nothing, and there was no one but me to stand and defend. The current span of circumstances underscored the feeling I’d had for a long time that there was a hole in my heart. I seem to have chances, and this great big black undefinable abyss that is my life just sucks possibilities, hope, want, into some unknowable, unfathomable deep sea. The entire situation felt ominous from fore to aft.
“Well, that’s just bullshit,” I said tightly. “I don’t know where these ‘indications’ came from, but they are categorically untrue.” Categorically? Christ. I sounded like some first-year law student. Worse, I sounded way too strident. “What are these indications, anyway?”
“No offense, Professor Start, but we aren’t ready to share a lot of details yet. I’m sure you understand,” Ransom said. No, I really didn’t understand, but again, I declined to say so.
Finally, Jake spoke. His tone reminded me that he was not Jake, my erstwhile lover, but a cop. And his face was expressionless. I’d never seen Jake without an emotion playing across his face. I didn’t like it.
“Did Thomas ever talk to you about his personal life? Lovers, friends, hookups, people he hung out with?”
“No. Not much,” I stated tonelessly.
“Did he talk about any trouble he was having with anyone: boyfriends, employers, instructors?”
“No,” I responded again, matching his lack of emotion. I was looking him in the eye, and there was nothing. Not a look of familiarity, regret, sorrow. Nothing but a vague wariness. As though he were talking to, looking at, my doppelganger, not me.
“Ever tell you that he’d been injured, by anyone, maybe someone he was having sex with?”
“No, never.” What was that about? I wanted to know more, but not from them.
They asked a few more questions about my private and RISD email, shook my hand, and left, stating they would undoubtedly be back. I rubbed my hands up and down my face, wiping away leftover tears, trying to start some circulation somewhere. But I was suddenly and thoroughly exhausted. I wanted sleep, and for sleep not to end. I wanted my cat and my downy cocoon. I wanted comfort. Truth be told, I would have wanted the comfort to come from Jake. But I knew he was on the wrong side. Now he was someone to be feared. I wondered what he’d tell Ransom about my itching. Panic hit me like a cyclone.