Woman in the Bridge
by Claudia A. Geagan
Curt’s closed gunmetal grey casket was wedged against baskets of white roses in the center aisle. I tried to picture him in a suit, hands folded, thin lips sealed. He must have owned a suit, but I never saw it, and his hands were always moving, shaping the air. My Curt had been all bounce and imagination, his life a response to light and texture, curve and angle. I looked around at people I didn’t know. This was Curt’s real life and it was huge.
I leaned against the back wall of the choir loft, almost the last mourner to be crowded inside Christ Church. The loft smelled of lemon oil and old wood, and to my left an organist pumped the foot pedals. People in the nave below me, rows of dark suitcoats and black dresses, were packed shoulder to shoulder, like ravens on a wire, patient, waiting. As the Episcopal priests, male and female, glided around the arched chancel in their white albs and brocade chasubles, the Collect floated up – …Accept our prayers on behalf of your servant …
When it came time for the Eucharist, ushers helped us find our way downstairs. I kneeled at the communion rail and when the Chalice Bearer stood in front of me, I put my lips to the cup like those around me. Were they grieving in their own way or were they here because they ought to be, grieving for the very public and very good Curtis Chandler?
Southern as a swamp breeze and equally as mysterious, Curt was feted for his brave contributions to racial equality in our small deep-south city. Curt was a smart country boy who quit college, married young and went to work as a carpenter. Forty years later he retired as president of a large construction company and became a sculptor. He also worked with prisoners re-entering society, providing jobs and housing. I knew of Curt the successful commercial builder, Curt the philanthropist, Curt the crusader and Curt the husband. But I knew best Curt the Sculptor. Back in the loft, I looked down at his country-girl turned gourmet-chef widow sitting in the first row. Family and friends and distinguished representatives of the black community flanked and petted her. She seemed his round peg in a round hole, the connection to society he needed.
The first of Curt’s sculpture studios that I saw was strewn with art books and photographs, the walls paneled in oak, the floor paved with wood blocks. His battered brown leather chair was snugged up against the fireplace. On a reclaimed mantel a bouquet of hand saws splayed from an earthen vase, each bequeathed to Curt by a retiring carpenter who’d worked for him, saws worn and sharpened, honed to their various shapes by of the strength of the carpenter’s hands and the angle of his cuts. Each stroke one moment of a man’s finite life. Some stubbed, some thinned, some simply worn. Each an explosion of atoms, the thrust and contraction of a muscle, the severing of a board. I looked at those saws and saw them move, smelled the sawdust and the sweat.
As a sculptor, Curt worked a hunk of wood or a piece of clay the way a man coaxes a woman, with his hands, with his shoulders, touching her until her back arches, till her shoulders and her head are thrown back in abandon. That was the pose of the woman in his most noted statue, a bronze casting of a woman possessed by an inner passion. All Curt’s statues were of women.
At the time Curt’s studio was the lowest level of his art-charmed house, and my private tour was an adjunct to a small dinner party-fundraiser to which my husband and I had been invited. His wife had studied cooking at the French Laundry and they were combining their talents to raise money for released prisoners.
Being in Curt’s work space was like scuba diving on a coral reef - weightless and seductive. The molecules in my skin started to dance. To discourage my unbidden arousal I complimented Curt on all the good that he had achieved for his community. “We try,” he said, “ but I don’t believe in too much goodness. Don’t trust it.” He crowded my shoulder and ran his index finger slowly along the back of my waist and when I didn’t move away, he pursed his thin lips, then dropped his hand and stood motionless for a moment. “Let me show you my latest.” He kicked over a block of hardwood. “Part of a bridge they just took down. I dunno.” He kicked it to another side. “You see a woman in there?” I wanted to but I didn’t. I moved toward the stairs and he ran his fingers up my back bone, then put his hand on the small of my back to guide me up, releasing us both into the party at the top. His hand was pure pleasure. I don’t believe in too much goodness myself, but enough to keep my married self out of trouble. Safely back with the other guests, I found my glass of wine and melted into the chatter.
Curt stood about five ten, thinning hair, small features and curious gray eyes that seemed to take in everything, Not conventionally handsome, but when his hands had felt for my skin, for my bones, I could have stopped, and through that electric channel of connectedness, offered him a pass to explore as he wished. I wanted him to rub his hands everywhere, read the Braille of my body, memorize it, find the statue of a woman in there.
I wanted to be known, leg bone to hip bone, vertebrae by vertebrae, the curve of my back, flesh and skin, downy hair on my arms, curly hair on my head. Who knew me like that? Who would even care to grasp for knowledge of me. Lightly as we had tread, in my constrained middle-class life, I felt I had crossed some taboo.
Was Curt really who he said he was? An artist who became a builder to make a living, or a builder who became an artist when he could live without working? I don’t know. A philanthropist who acted on his Christian principles or just someone pissed off enough at injustice to do a little something about it? I can’t answer those questions. I can only tell you that the people in that church admired Curt for the goodness he wasn’t wed to. His artistry was mentioned in passing, but there was no mention of his sensuous creativity. No doubt there were other women the church who, like me, felt that maybe, just maybe if she let his hands wander he would memorize her, find her in the dark. Perhaps he had done that for them.
About a year after my studio tour, Curt tried to kiss me on a staircase leading to his nearby and darkened exhibit space. I demurred. The second try he merely bussed my face near my lips as though someone had rubbed velvet on my skin. I backed off with a little force. Pure reflex. “Okay. Okay,” he raised his hands in surrender, “I’ll behave myself.” And he did. I wonder sometimes what that kiss would have been about. A push towards an end or maybe an exploration of what was going on, where we wanted to go from there. Curt liked to search and I wanted desperately to be found. For me, each of Curt’s improprieties was like the thrust of a chisel, exploring in that block of wood for who I was. How did I look naked, not just without clothes but without flesh? What was the shape of my spirit, of my desire to be alive?
“Keep chipping away," I wanted to say,” show me who is in there." Get to know her, Curt, then introduce me. I had done a good job of hiding in that log of propriety and role playing. I was married to a very good husband, laid claim to educated children, a biggish job title. The bridge support I hid in had been solid. As far as I know everyone believed it, even me. No stray hair, no non-conformity broke through the surface. Neither could anyone reach in.
I remember a second-grade teacher with a deformed thumb, looking as though it had been smashed to pulp in her childhood, then allowed to grow back in any shape it wished. She’d cup my chin in her palm and smooth my cheek with it. I loved her beautiful thumb. If I’d had a deformed thumb would someone have loved it? Would Curt have sculpted it?
A year or two later, Curt bought adjoining 1950s storefronts on the not yet resurrected end of Main Street and carved a home out of burned joists and red clay. No one but Curt could possibly have seen a home in there. I haunted the job site when I was in town. If it looked like Curt was around I wheedled for a tour of the progress. In a bear’s den of dirt and dangling roots, I surveyed charred beams and chunks of concrete fringed with twisted rebar while muscled, hard faced men shoveled debris into big rubber trash cans.
Close to Curt, I whispered “Where’d you get this crew? They look like they belong in prison.”
“That’s where I got ‘em.”
The stringy muscle and deliberately unseeing eyes kindled a sense of danger, but the men ignored me.
Curt indicated a semi excavated cave about a foot above the main level. “That’s the bedroom.”
In the other direction he pointed into a wall of dirt. “That’s gonna be a floor to ceiling window. Just slope the hill away from the house a couple feet and we’ll be bathed in light.”
I swiveled left and right, awestruck at his imagination.
“First six feet across the front is my gallery. Buffer us from the street.”
If your home is to be a work of art, you must discover the home in the site the way you discover the woman in the bridge strut. You see into the void and to see in such darkness you must feel. You must know the malleability of dirt and concrete and the strength of your own will. There is no language to express the unbedded bedroom or the unlighted window, only feel.
Curt nurtured his southern-country accent and relished his poor-stories. And while he did hail from a few acres down a country road with his family name on it, he turned out as smart and as worldly as any man. Most of it based on feel and instinct.
“You’re ‘bout the only visitor I let in here,” Curt drawled, “cause I know you can see it. Rest of ‘em got no idea.” It was as though Curt stood me in front of a mirror and the woman staring back was all carved from butter, smooth and slippery to his touch. He never touched me on those trips, but was flirtatious enough to look over his shoulder a few times to see if he had opportunity. Nothing else in my life at that time gave me opportunity to undulate in such a never-ending curve of imagination.
The finished house stood dense with weaving and wood, tile and stone, bathed in meandering light and imagination. Curt’s studio was perched in a rooftop garden. He opened one of his many Italian sketchbooks of nude women, leaned into my body and invited me to look. If only I hadn’t been so afraid. I wanted to sit next to him and explore the drawings, to run my fingers over the shapes, to feel Curt breathe, to know him, to know myself as curve and movement, as warmth and want, as need and arch. To know the slight mound that is my belly, to thrust it upward and let Curt’s palm feel it and hold the feeling till he would see me in the wood.
But I would only glance at the pictures. I felt the danger of my own sensual longings and disregard for too much goodness. I was never alone with Curt again. Not long thereafter Curt went into the hospital for a simple procedure, contracted sepsis and died within days.
In the deep, southern August heat, I walked several city blocks and then across the breadth of the uneven graveyard with a small hearty band of other mourners to the gravesite. The noise of road traffic receded into the background, and a ribbon of creative arousal drifted across the grassy mounds–just Curt fooling around, I thought.
Inside my black linen dress, I felt the firmness of my own body, appreciated the strength that had let me make the trek. The priest intoned about being made of dust and returning thereto, but I thought about being created of energy and curve and imagination, of moving molecules, of all that Curt had bequeathed to me.
About the Author
Claudia Geagan has aging degrees in English and Finance. Most of her life was frittered away in big cities and big corporations.
These days she lives and writes on a leafy mountainside in South Carolina. Her work has been published in River Teeth's Beautiful Things, The Lindenwood Review, The Louisville Review, Hippocampus Magazine and others.