Johnny had modeled for artists in his early twenties but was disappointed with the work. Hours spent nude on plinths in those drafty rooms, and only one painting had ever done him justice. The piece was not realistic but was so delicately feathered with oils, Johnny felt something well inside him. The painting was exactly how he saw himself: a creature of strange plumage, terrifyingly exquisite. It was like the painter had reached into the murkiest caves of Johnny’s mind. He had never felt more naked in his life. Johnny thought of that painting now, hanging in his childhood bedroom in Tennessee, and wanted to weep.
Johnny buffed his left bicuspid with a special white cloth. He hadn’t shaved in days. Little hairs were beginning to sprout about his nipples like ryegrass. Some seedlings, he had learned, yearn for the sun with such force they’ll smash their heads through the pavement. He liked to think of his body this way, as a radiating field of yearning. Each hair, each fingernail, each droplet of sweat reaching for light. Still, he found his nipple hairs sickening and so dispatched them with his razor.
You must find the man within the hunk of marble, he would often say to himself. He’d been compared to Michelangelo’s David, but he preferred the supple-bodied sculptures of Bernini, stone so soft it seemed you could press your thumb into it like dough.
He finished shaving his nipples, brushed his teeth, and stood squarely in his full-length mirror. He took a good look. Was he happy with what he saw? He’d had a troubling lunch with his plastic surgeon, who after years of research claimed to have unlocked the mathematics of sublime beauty.
“The gold standard,” he’d said over their oysters, “the most beautiful face in the world, is the amalgam of every face one ever encounters. The exact average.”
Johnny tried to imagine this. He tried to think of all the faces he’d seen but could picture only his own. Even the plastic surgeon’s face seemed to blur and warp.
He went on. “A face so unremarkable the mind has to do no work to figure it out. To behold beauty is to be comforted by its familiarity.”
Johnny considered this. “I don’t buy it.”
The two of them had lunch every Wednesday. The plastic surgeon was Johnny’s emergency contact. He smiled and shook his finger knowingly. His teeth were dazzling.
“I have constructed a nose.” The plastic surgeon reached into his pocket and pulled out a nose made of salmon pink putty. “I ran some equations through the computer and crunched the numbers. Here. Hold it in your hand.”
Johnny took the nose. It was extremely handsome. Holding it to his face, he felt a strange sense of calm. He didn’t want to give his friend the satisfaction.
“I’ll keep the one I’ve got for now,” Johnny said, handing the nose back.
The plastic surgeon gave him a look. “Your funeral,” he said. “The math checks out.”
Johnny couldn’t get the nose out of his head. He examined himself in the halogen light of the bathroom mirror. His eyes were as yellow as daffodils. His lips were princely pillows, perfectly pink. He was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. Did he have an average face?
That night, in his dream, Johnny posed before a doctor in a white lab coat. In the doctor’s hand was a kitchen knife. Johnny’s clothes were in a pile on a chair.
“You have misunderstood beauty,” said the doctor.
Johnny touched his face. “Have I?”
He ran his fingers over the depressions below his cheekbones, along his angular jaw. He touched the sinews in his neck and his delicate collarbones. He combed the fingers of his other hand through his fine curls of hair.
“Can you fix me?” he asked.
The doctor said he couldn’t make any promises, then began to cut Johnny’s hair. The curls fell to the floor and flopped there like glittering fish.
The doctor made a cut down his belly. He opened Johnny’s body like a duffel bag. Blood dripped down the doctor’s hands as he peeled off Johnny’s skin. He then set about dismantling the bones from their sockets. The ribs, he snapped off one by one and piled on the floor. They sounded like bamboo chimes. The doctor fished the guts out by hand like hair from a drain.
When the doctor was finished, Johnny was just two eyeballs floating five-foot-seven above the ground. The doctor was sweating, slumped triumphantly in his chair. He admired his work.
“Isn’t this a relief!” Johnny wanted to say, but he had no mouth.
Gus Bravos celebrated his birthday beneath the permanent sunset of his favorite Los Angeles casino’s ceiling mural. He spent it with a lover, a network television writer who, despite her luck with bingo, cried into a bowl of noodles. It had been a long year. She’d caught a common cold. Half of her face had gone numb. The cold never went away. The doctors could only guess. And the fortune inside her cookie said she was going to impress some very important people. And there wasn’t a fortune in his.
“Rita,” he said, taking her picture. She stood in sunglasses before the Monopoly machine, winning.
Rita punched him in the shoulder. “Gus!”
“Rita!” he said, taking another. A blurry smile.
They played the slots. The Fruit machine. The Mega Moolah machine. Wheel of Fortune, Achilles, A Day at the Derby, Jeopardy, Calendar Boys. There was a particular calendar boy, the most famous of the bunch, that caught the couple’s attention.
“Look!” Rita said, pointing. “It’s Johnny.”
Gus had met Johnny as a student. Johnny had been naked, splayed comfortably on a green velvet loveseat at the center of the classroom. It was Gus’s first nude painting and therefore his best. What struck Gus most was not the blankness of Johnny’s gaze nor the weight of Johnny’s genitals against the backdrop of his sharp frame. What Gus had most wanted to transcribe was the sacred geometry of Johnny’s reaching neck.
Reaching for what? Gus had asked himself. And so he painted his answer.
The portrait was deemed successful. Gus’s instructor, Ms. Mabel, lauded its restraint. “This,” she said, “is an exercise in longing.” These words became a mantra to Gus, an ethic.
When Johnny first saw the painting, he cried. “It’s me,” he said. He shook Gus’s hand and thanked him.
The next time Johnny saw the painting, displayed at a university art show, he approached Gus and offered to buy it. They agreed on a small, friendly sum. The exchange was so clean as to constitute the beginning of a friendship.
A week later, Johnny invited Gus over to his apartment for a shoot. The resulting photographs were the best that had ever been taken of Johnny, so good that they landed him his first agent the very next month.
The night Johnny signed the contract, he took Gus out to dinner to celebrate. Gus was taking a bite of his ratatouille when Johnny raised his glass.
“To my cameraman,” Johnny declared.
Gus lifted his orange wine. “To my goldmine,” he said.
“There he is,” Gus laughed, pointing to the Calendar Boys machine.
“Here we are,” Rita said, changing the subject, pulling Gus close, giving him a long, wet kiss on the mouth.
Gus found several good moments that evening. He got a picture of the woman at the cashier counter, smoking behind the glass, counting Rita’s payout. He got another of a man with a sleeping chihuahua on his lap, pulling the lever of a slot machine. The best photo was of an Elvis impersonator vomiting into a urinal.
Gus thought of Elvis dying on the toilet in Graceland. He thought too of the photo of Elvis in his open casket. But the photo of Elvis that haunted Gus most was one of The King kissing his mother on the cheek, his eyes closed, his fingers gripping the fat of her neck, and she, Gladys, staring away blankly, with a grimness reserved by some mothers for only the most beautiful of children.
Elvis had been by all accounts a perfect son. Perhaps this was the problem. The minute a perfect son leaves a certain type of mother’s side is the same minute she begins to die. And so Gladys drank herself away. And when she died, Elvis began to die too. Entire nights spent in his mother’s Graceland closet touching her gowns and smelling her clothes.
Naturally, Gus had always dreamed of capturing something so perfect, something for everyone. There, in the lamplight of Rita’s hotel suite, his hands resting on the backs of her thighs, her left nipple between his teeth, he decided his opus. To take Johnny away from California and to his mother in Tennessee. There, he would take a true portrait.
Rita returned to her family early the next morning.
“Send me those pictures,” she said as she closed the door behind her.
Gus ordered breakfast to the hotel room. Four pancakes and corned beef hash. He picked up the phone and dialed Johnny’s assistant.
“Henry. It’s Gus. I’d like to schedule a lunch.”
April was coming, and the plum blossoms littered Johnny’s garden like chicken feathers. The petals were pretty, but they unsettled him. Danger, said his mind, Coyote in the coop. He knew this had something to do with the fleeting nature of beauty. It was the reason he had planted the plums all those years ago, to remind himself.
He touched his face and remembered the nose. The impeccable, eternal putty he could choose to become. But there was pleasure in aging, pleasure to be found in the leaves that followed the blossoms. Even when the leaves turned crisp, shivered, shed, there was beauty in the knotted branches. I am entering the winter of my life, Johnny thought. I am only wood. He heard his mother’s voice. “Wood rots,” it said. But there is beauty in what is still reaching, Johnny thought. He hoped it was true.
Gus introduced the proposal over Sashimi, just as he’d rehearsed it in front of his bathroom mirror the night before. He told Johnny the story of his life, the story of their work.
“We’ve been everywhere, Johnny. The Canadian Rockies and the Canary Islands. We’ve been to Mexico City and we’ve been to Milan. But we haven’t been home.”
Home, Johnny thought, Tennessee. He pictured himself chopping wood at dawn. He pictured himself stoking a healthy fire. Maybe he would rake a pile of leaves. And after he raked, he could wade into the river half-nude. Or entirely nude. Baptized, again.
“I don’t know,” Johnny said, placing a thin slice of king salmon on his tongue, letting it melt.
“It’s been said you die twice. Once when you die, and once when people stop telling your story.”
Johnny swallowed. “I don’t want to die,” he said.
He pondered his story. His aging mother and her seven tortoises. Her many lovers, his many fathers. Who his real father was had always been a mystery. Naturally, Johnny grew up asking.
“Elvis,” Lydia would say.
Sometimes Johnny would wake up to the sound of Lydia’s chair rocking on the porch only to find her beer-drunk in the moonlight.
“What’s wrong?” little Johnny would whisper through the window.
Lydia provided the same answer every time. “I miss Elvis.”
Johnny took measure of the great lengths he’d gone to be seen. “True beauty,” he said, “is a full-time job. A life’s work.”
“Yeah,” Gus said, gulping his Sapporo. “You look good.”
“Good?” Johnny asked. “Is that bad?”
Johnny’s mother, Lydia, had little use for the fleeting beauties of the world. She liked what was hard and lasting. She lived in a stone house. On her property were the spacious enclosures of her tortoises. She had seven, all told, most of which had been rescued from the extravagant properties of Nashville’s country stars, among whom they’d been a short-lived fad.
Her favorite was named Hank, a rescue from an old singer. His shell had grown warped from malnutrition, as if it had been cinched with wire. He’d been fed cigarettes and abused, kicked over and left upside down for hours. The country singer wept to look at him stuck like that, and that’s how he wrote his songs, watching his malformed tortoise wave its legs in the air. The songs were popular and still played sometimes on Lydia’s radio. When they did, Hank would walk slowly but surely into a corner of his pen and huddle there until Lydia could change the station. Sometimes it took a while. Lydia was old, but preferred not to use her cane.
True, Hank’s was a sad story, but these days Lydia sat with him in his pen, cradled him in her arms, scratched his neck, kissed his wrinkled face. She loved to run her hands over his buckled shell. When she sang to him, Hank closed his eyes as if, finally, in the arms of his mother, he could take it easy.
Johnny had rarely known such sweetness, even with lovers. There was always something faraway about the way they touched him, the way one might hesitate to touch a religious fresco, afraid even the oils of one’s fingers might harm something so sublime.
When Johnny first saw Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna in his twenties, he wondered at the warmth with which Mary held the boy. The child was ugly, his eyes heavy, his mouth stupidly open, a hand reaching under his mother’s collar for her breast. But the way she looked at her child burdened Johnny. The soft glow on her face visited him in his loneliness, haunted him. Only photographs had ever held him like that.
He thought of his mother cradling her prehistoric creatures. He resented Hank and all the other tortoises. He found them hideous. He didn’t like their long heads that emerged like poops or the way their mouths turned up in a toothless, lipless grin. Evil things, he thought. His mother’s decision to open the sanctuary all those years ago had seemed to him a direct rebuttal to his own career. He knew she thought models were fey, delicate things. Ephemeral as flowers.
For a time in his thirties, he wore leather and spoke loudly at bars. He wanted to harden into middle age, squinting handsomely into the sun. He wanted to believe beauty was everlasting. He knew how to hold the glow on his cheekbones. He knew how to sweat prettily. He knew how to maintain his face. He applied droppers of exfoliating acid, then serums, scented oils, toners, creams, massaged them in tenderly how one might massage a pork loin with marinade. He did his exercises.
They sorted out the details. A weekend was enough to finish the job. Two nights at Lydia’s was about all Johnny could commit to. He dreaded it already. He knew the things she would say, the ragged incisions she always made. But one thing Johnny understood was to trust Gus Bravos. Johnny, too, understood true art. He knew it when he saw it. He was a professional.
Johnny would sleep in his childhood bedroom, unchanged since his departure following high school. This would transport him, help him to drink from the well of himself. Gus would sleep on the pullout couch in the living room. Immersion, he insisted, would be necessary.
Johnny and Gus landed in Nashville to an impeccable autumn. The flight attendants requested a photo. One by one Johnny obliged, smiling easily into the camera. At baggage claim, among plantation tourists and fraternity children, Johnny stood arms crossed with one foot on the lip of the carousel. He watched as Gus searched for the correct angle. Behind Johnny was a slice of an advertisement that read, The only ten I see!
The river appeared and disappeared through the trees. The sun grew as it fell slowly in the rearview mirror. They pulled up to the gate, pushed the button, and waited a minute to be let in. Lydia was standing at the end of the driveway with her hands in her blue jean pockets. Gus took her picture from the passenger seat before Johnny could touch her.
“Welcome to Graceland,” she said, smiling.
Johnny kissed her once on each cheek. “I’m home,” he said. “What’s for dinner?”
“A kale, apple, and dandelion salad for the tortoises, and a sweet potato casserole for the humans.”
“I’ll have what the turtles are having,” Johnny said.
Johnny took Gus on a tour. They passed through the living room, where the corduroy sofa bed had already been opened and fitted with fleece. Johnny’s bedroom was just down the hall. Gus’s original portrait of Johnny hung above the twin bed. Johnny had hung it there long ago.
“Why don’t you get on the bed?” Gus asked.
Johnny nodded. Within seconds he was positioned exactly as he had been in the studio classroom some thirty years before. “Yes,” Gus said. He turned the ceiling light off, then on again. “Yes.”
There was a large birchwood dresser, a small desk by the lone window, and a floor-length mirror. The bedding was red flannel. The walls were moth-brown. One vertical mirror faced the foot of the bed. The ceiling was covered with self-portraits Johnny had created throughout his young life, from infancy through boyhood to his early adult years. Crayon, colored pencils, charcoal. Gus took photo after photo. He’d never seen anything like it.
Johnny decided to take a warm shower before dinner. “I won’t be long,” he said, “why don’t you go check on dinner?”
In the bathroom, Johnny pulled out his garments and laid each on the lip of the tub, on the laminate counter, on the toilet, then hung several from the shower curtain rod, until the small bathroom started to resemble a closet. He breathed. He had surrounded himself with beauty, blocked out the cracking linoleum, the paint blistered on the ceiling, the black mold growing in the grout around the tub. The state of the house.
He felt calm, held in silks and cashmeres. He touched the green suit. The mock turtleneck in midnight blue. The buttercream shirt. The long black kaftan painted with delicate orchids. Jewelry. Scarves. Pearls. Ties. He greeted them like friends. He imagined his mother in all of them.
In his twenties, when he started getting jobs, he had offered to do her makeup. Her laughter had been as cruel as glass breaking. Even now he felt the shards of it down his spine.
Lydia’s casserole cooled on the counter. She scooped a corner and tasted it.
“It’s only getting colder. Maybe someday he’ll be on time for dinner.”
Gus clicked his camera. Lydia turned away. “What are you taking pictures of? The casserole?”
“The cook and her creation,” Gus said.
“How do I look?”
Lydia laughed. “He looks more like his father.”
“The King,” Lydia said, nodding.
Johnny entered the kitchen with an easy smile. “Feel this,” he said. He stood between Lydia and Gus and held a sleeve out to each. “Green silk. Italian.”
“Very nice,” said Gus.
Lydia took the silk between her fingers. “Just like your father’s suits.”
In the photograph of this moment, Lydia softens, limp in the teeth of a memory. Johnny stiffens, watching his mother say the words. There is resentment in the way he looks down at her, but more so pity. It was at this moment, Gus knew, that Johnny realized his mother was truly alone.
When he heard the camera click, Johnny turned to Gus and smiled. Gus knew the first shot was the one, but he took another for Johnny.
“You boys hungry?” said Lydia. And her face hardened again.
Under the yellow light at the kitchen table, the three ate and spoke for a good half an hour about Nashville and how much it had changed for the worse. It no longer felt like home to Johnny, and though it did to Lydia, she no longer bothered going into town to see shows. Gus asked questions to fill the occasional silences.
Once the food was gone, they drank. Even Johnny. The three of them enjoyed a special whiskey, a gift from a longtime neighbor. When Gus asked Johnny where home was, Johnny struggled to answer.
“LA, I guess,” he said.
When Lydia asked Johnny where he would retire, Johnny said he didn’t plan on retiring, that he hadn’t thought of it. His face had soured at the very notion and so Gus changed the subject.
When Gus asked Lydia about her tortoises, she only spoke of their problems. She went on about their many indigestions and illnesses, about their soft shells and traumas. “What I love most about them,” she said, “is that they keep going.”
The three sat before the fireplace in the living room. They stared at the embers glowing through the bellies of the thick logs. Lydia removed her shoes and socks and crossed her bare feet as she rocked in her chair. With each drink the drinking became easier, accelerating the night with less care than was necessary. The fire grew and Johnny removed his blazer. He posed sloppily for a photo in his silk turtleneck with his full glass. Gus took the photo dutifully. In it, Lydia is hunched in her chair beside Johnny, her hard face orange from the fire.
“Your father and I used to sit by the fire,” she said. “He loved to sit by the fire.”
Johnny shook his head silently. “I know, Mom.”
“He used to sing to me, too,” Lydia said.
“What did he sing, Mom?”
“Blue moon. Blue moon. Blue moon,” she sang.
Johnny turned to Gus and rolled his eyes. He pointed a finger to his head and pulled the trigger.
“Can you sing, Gus?” she asked.
“No, I can’t.”
“A shame. Johnny can’t either. Not at all. All he is is beautiful.”
Gus resisted the temptation to take a photo. He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and Johnny wiped it off.
“Lydia,” Gus said, “Johnny’s your son.”
“I know. I know that,” she slurred. “But why couldn’t he have been a singer?”
“La la la la la,” Johnny sang, getting up to leave. “Are you happy?”
“Not really,” said Lydia, laughing into her drink.
Johnny stormed towards the door, shaking his head, singing angrily. When Gus stood to follow him, Lydia grabbed his arm. “Let’s enjoy our whiskey, Gus. Johnny does this every time.”
“Don’t worry,” Gus explained. “It’s my job.”
Gus found Johnny on the mulch floor of the enclosure. The tortoise was sitting next to him, content. It was a good photo.
“Where’s Johnny?” said Lydia from the doorway.
Gus sighed. “Johnny’s in the cage and he won’t come out.”
Lydia threw up her hands. “Good lord,” she said. “That’s Hank’s cage, Johnny. Your cage is those stupid photographs.”
Gus lifted his camera.
My cage is my geometrically perfect body, Johnny thought, but he didn’t correct her. To have to say this out loud to his own mother would prove she didn’t know him at all. He sat there cross-legged, feeding grass to the tortoise. The sound of Hank’s chewing glittered the air like paparazzi.
Photographs, Johnny believed, were the opposite of a cage. They were his life’s work disseminated, his devotion to loveliness and poetry broadcast, his beauty run amok in the glossy folds of the world’s side tables and waiting rooms. The internet was spangled with him too, how sunlight litters the surface of a lake. The images were alive in the imaginings of the world. They were more alive than he’d ever be. Johnny clung to the assumption that his mother was just trying to hurt him. That perhaps she, now in her old age, was jealous of her radiant son. But she went on.
“Your cage is your need to have everybody look at you. But what do you want from them? To be told you’re pretty? Do you really think you’re going to be pretty forever?”
Gus watched Johnny’s face turn ugly. It was a fleeting occurrence he’d only seen once before. He felt his hand twitch for his camera, then bury itself in his pocket. Have mercy, Gus thought. He felt for Johnny. In a strange way, he almost loved him the way some fathers love some sons. No, that wasn’t right. He loved him like a wounded thing, a rabbit gasping.
Gus watched the image slip away.
Lydia opened her mouth to continue, but Gus spoke. “Lydia, he’s great at what he does.”
“But what good is he to me now that he’s gone?” She turned and made her way back into the house.
“Johnny,” said Gus.
Johnny refused to look up. He took out his headshots and showed them to the tortoise. “Look,” he said. “Am I a disappointment?”
Hank regarded the photograph. He elongated his neck and paused thoughtfully. Then he took it in his mouth and slowly crushed it. He chewed and chewed. He didn’t stop until the photo had disappeared inside him. Johnny took out another one. Hank ate that one too. He fed him another, then another, until he’d fed the tortoise all that he had to offer.
A tortoise can live four hundred years. How many times had Johnny heard that? The tortoises will be here long after we’re not. Lydia believed this the way one believes in Heaven. The thought had always frightened Johnny, even sickened him. A world of oldness and ugliness and wrinkled necks.
But now, watching Hank digest, the thought was a comfort. No more witnesses but these homely stone creatures. No more eyes. No more flashes. Just the glittering marbles of Hank, taking him in without judgment.
Johnny closed his eyes and cried. He lost control of his face. The strings of his cheek muscles pulled and cinched him taut, his mouth curled, his forehead rumpled. I look like wet laundry, he thought. He felt beauty wash off him like makeup, puddle around him. I am a hag. A rotting log. I am full of worms and mushrooms. He kept his eyes closed and felt the breeze touch his true face at last, wet with tears.
He heard footsteps, then the crunch and whir of photographs being taken.
Gus felt his heart in his throat. He thought of Michelangelo’s Pieta. With his camera, he held Johnny that way, limp and tender. He thought of Elvis. He thought of kissing his own mother’s ugliness, her face softened as a cake left in the rain as she took her last breath, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Gus was crying.
Johnny felt the flash kiss his own face, prone and ugly, and he felt witnessed, mothered. A lullaby welled in his ears. He felt relief.
In the morning the tortoise was dead. He looked like a rock, asleep. From his mouth issued a gentle foam from the chemical baths in which the photos were processed. For a tortoise, he wasn’t old at all.
Back in LA, in the heat of November. Johnny was in his robe on the balcony. The plum tree was nude, its trunk ugly and ancient. He had stayed for the tortoise’s funeral and held Lydia as they stood before Hank. He just looked like he was asleep, there in his hole at the edge of the woods. Then Johnny got on his knees and pushed dirt over the tortoise. When he stood up again, he was filthy, his hands and knees covered in dirt. Lydia took his face in her hard hands and kissed him, just once. He could still feel the kiss lingering on his lips, how whisky burns. She had never looked more beautiful to Johnny. Gus wasn’t there to capture it; he’d flown back by then.
Johnny thought of the photographs. He imagined shedding them all like leaves, standing alone in the yard in nothing but his own decrepit trunk. Like a newborn at last, like the grotesque tortoises his mom so loved. He’d fed the world his plums and now he must rot.