The prostitute was not surprised by Berke’s request. Nor when he unscrewed a fold-out easel in the bathroom. Organized his tubes of paint on the sink.
Berke’s city, 1944, bombed into its own shadow. The gathering of photographers excited by all this photogenic death. Orphans prowled the alleyways of his dead city. The orphans wanted to be photographed. The photographers didn’t want to photograph the orphans. The orphans stole the photographers’ equipment. The photographers became incensed and chased the orphans. The orphans hid in closets and cupboards.
“I want you to shower,” Berke said.
She covered her breasts with her hands and stepped into the shower. Awkward in the adolescent purity of the old man’s longing.
“The water should be cold. Turn away from me and wash yourself as though I’m not here.”
He outlined a background of disintegrating gray-stone and brick.
The white of the parched sky.
The woman in the ruins.
Her short brown hair.
White tight fingers clutching soap.
“Do you like this?” the girl asked.
“Continue to wash yourself,” Berke said.
Of it all, Berke remembered
The sinkhole of a house once belonging to a violin manufacturer, and the naked woman bathing contentedly in the spray of a geysering water main. Scrubbing her shoulders, dark silt drifting down her legs.
It wasn’t her face that he recalled, but the soap. As it slipped through her fingers. As it cascaded along the dusty street. As it descended into the gutter. As the woman turned to him.
The woman in the sinkhole began to cry. She looked pleadingly at Berke. He felt real shame, then. Shame at eavesdropping on her sadness.
He was twelve.
“Look at me,” the woman said to him.
“Look at me,” Berke said to the girl.
He hated the painting as soon as it was finished.
The girl wrapped herself in a towel. When she came up to Berke he slapped her hard on the face with the back of his hand. She was stunned with instinctive tears.
“I’m trying to find something,” he said.
“Did you find it?” she asked.
At the door he gave the girl an extra fifty dollars.
Afterwards he walked away to other ruins, wondering who else’s dream the woman would inhabit.